Steelers will be delighted to deal with Gronk-less Patriots

Steelers will be delighted to deal with Gronk-less Patriots

Aside from the folks at Abacus, the Pittsburgh Steelers may be the people that are happiest Rob Gronkowski’s moved from professional football to hawking CBD.

With Gronk otherwise occupied, the semi-annual beatings he applied to the Pittsburgh defense will cease. Actually, as the Steelers game-plan this week for Sunday’s opener against the Patriots, there’s really no tight end on the Patriots roster for them to worry about.

Ben Watson’s gone for the first four games. Lance Kendrick is down for the opener. Both of them are serving PED suspensions.

Free agent acquisition Matt Lacosse hasn’t played since being rolled up on in the preseason opener.

Second-year tight end Ryan Izzo, a seventh-round pick from Florida State, is more blocker than pass-catcher though he has worked hard to gain Tom Brady’s trust this preseason and shown some promise as a receiver.

The dropoff from Gronk to anyone would be precipitous. The dropoff from Gronk to nobody at all? What’s beyond precipitous?

In his final game against the Steelers last December, Gronk caught two passes for 21 yards in a 17-10 loss. Diminished in that game after taking three massive hits the week before in Miami, that was the only time Gronk suited up against Pittsburgh and didn’t ravage them.

In seven career games against the Steelers, Gronk had 41 catches for 685 yards and seven touchdowns. The first time he saw them back in 2010, Gronk was coming off a disastrous game in Cleveland against the Browns. In that Sunday night game, he responded to a Tom Brady sideline meltdown in the first half by catching all five passes sent his way for 72 yards and three touchdowns. In 2011, he caught seven for 94 and then had nine catches on 10 targets for 143 yards in 2013. In 2015, he caught all four passes he was targeted with for 94 yards. He missed the playoff game against the Steelers in 2016 because of a back injury but came back in 2017 to have one of the most dominant games of his career with nine catches for 168 yards in an epic late-season game.

The Patriots will miss Gronk all season but they’ll especially miss him in this one with no other option at tight end and most of their wideouts either just back from long layoffs (Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman) or making their NFL debuts (Jakobi Meyers, N’Keal Harry, Gunner Olszewski).

Lacosse, the 6-foot-6, 245-pounder the Patriots brought over from Denver as a free agent, remained upbeat Sunday when I asked him about being able to play in the opener.

“It’s just a day by day thing,” he said. “I feel like I’m doing a great job in rehab and practicing. It’s been good so far and I’m just excited to keep getting better.”

Lacosse was on the field last Thursday before the preseason finale with the Giants. He was unable to complete all the routes the other tight ends were running because of his lower leg injury.  

Where will the Patriots go for offensive production against Pittsburgh? It’s not hard to predict. They will try to run the ball effectively on early downs and – when they have to have it through the air – they’ll look to Edelman or one of their running backs (mostly James White).

And since the Steelers won’t have to worry about Gronk or any viable pass-catcher at that spot they can load up to stop the guys Brady usually relies on and make him go to targets he’s got less comfort with.

This will be the first post-Gronk game for the Patriots and the Steelers have to be giddy the hard process of figuring out who they’re going to be without him begins against them.

Olszewski on making Patriots: "It was the best phone call of my life">>>

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Opt-out deadline looms for Patriots, rest of NFL

Opt-out deadline looms for Patriots, rest of NFL

The opt-out deadline loometh.

By 4 p.m. Thursday, any NFL player in the “high-risk” category can opt out and receive $350,000 and credit for an accrued season. Players without the “high-risk” designation will be paid $150,000. That money will be considered an advance on their 2021 salaries.

As of Wednesday night, 60 players had opted out, including eight Patriots. Meanwhile, 56 players tested positive for COVID during initial screening as they reported for this very different training camp. That’s fewer than three percent of all players. Another 107 had it prior to reporting. Those numbers are according to the NFLPA.

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So what will Thursday bring? The Patriots are leading the league in opt-outs by a wide margin. Four Browns have opted out as of Thursday morning. Several teams have three opt outs.

A team’s fortunes can be radically altered by an opt-out if a key player decides the risk is too great for him or his family. The AFC East has probably seen the most consequential opt outs so far.  

Expectations for the Patriots have to be reconfigured as they figure out how to best replace Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung and Marcus Cannon. The Jets are going to be without talented linebacker C.J. Mosley. The Dolphins are without wide receivers Allen Hurns and Albert Wilson. And the Bills have lost corner E.J. Gaines and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.

Meanwhile, their brilliant corner Tre’Davious White was still wrestling with his decision on Thursday morning and railing on Twitter that he was being criticized for debating it. The replies are — as you might imagine — a trip. Maintaining the status quo on this topic, a fleet of people wonder how come they don’t get to opt out of their 9-to-5.

Because you can’t. OK? Maybe if you tackled people at work you’d have a shot, but you probably don’t. And if you do tackle people at work and you didn’t get the opt-out provision, you gotta get yourself to the NFL ASAFP.

Will the Patriots lose any more players? Certainly could. A number of players are still wrestling with it. With a decision so personal and difficult, I’ve come to realize it’s unfair to speculate on individual players and why they may or may not decide to play. (Patrick Chung helped me get there…).

For the lion’s share, the decision is so difficult because it revolves around factors other than their or their family’s personal health. It’s not cut-and-dried.

Age, finances, professional satisfaction, all of it can weigh in.

Saints defensive end Cam Jordan, asked last week if he considered opting out, said, "Uh, nope I feel like our team is so, so close to a championship.”

We’ll keep you updated throughout the day and Phil Perry and I will sift through all of it on Tom Curran’s Patriots Talk Podcast after the deadline. 

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NFL opt-outs: Complete list of players who won't play in 2020 season

NFL opt-outs: Complete list of players who won't play in 2020 season

NFL training camps are already in full swing, but there are some notable absences.

Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif became the first NFL player to opt out of the 2020 season last Friday, citing health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Since then, multiple players have followed suit, continuing a trend across all major North American professional sports of players declining to participate in their seasons as COVID-19 persists in the United States.

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The Patriots especially have felt the impact of this trend: Eight New England players -- including star linebacker Dont'a Hightower -- already have opted out, the most of any NFL team.

Below is a running list of the players who have opted out of the 2020 NFL season, according to reports or team/player confirmations. The list is sorted alphabetically after the Patriots, with the date of the players' opt-outs in parentheses.

New England Patriots

RB Brandon Bolden (July 28)
OT Marcus Cannon (July 28)
S Patrick Chung (July 28)
LB Dont'a Hightower (July 28)
WR Marqise Lee (August 1)
OG Najee Toran (July 27)
FB Danny Vitale (July 27)
TE Matt LaCosse (August 2)

Arizona Cardinals

OT Marcus Gilbert (August 4)

Baltimore Ravens

OT Andre Smith (July 28)
WR/KR De'Anthony Thomas (July 27)

Buffalo Bills

CB E.J. Gaines (August 2)
DT Star Lotulelei (July 28)

Carolina Panthers

LB Jordan Mack (July 28)
LB Christian Miller (August 3)

Chicago Bears

DT Eddie Goldman (July 28)
S Jordan Lucas (August 3)

Cincinnati Bengals

OT Isaiah Prince (July 31)
DT Josh Tupou (July 31)

Cleveland Browns

DT Andrew Billings (August 4)
OL Drake Dorbeck (July 29)
OL Drew Forbes (July 29)
OL Colby Gossett (August 4)

Dallas Cowboys

CB Maurice Canady (July 27)
WR Stephen Guidry (July 28)
FB Jamize Olawale (August 2)

Denver Broncos

OT JaWuan James (August 3)
DT Kyle Peko (July 28)

Detroit Lions

DT John Atkins (July 29)
WR Geronimo Allison (August 2)
C Russell Bodine (August 5)

Green Bay Packers

WR Devin Funchess (July 28)

Houston Texans

DT Eddie Vanderdoes (July 28)

Indianapolis Colts

DB Rolan Milligan (August 5) 
LB Skai Moore (August 4)
DB Marvell Tell (August 5)

Jacksonville Jaguars

EDGE Larentee McCray (August 1)
DL Al Woods (July 31)

Kansas City Chiefs

OG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (July 24)
OT Lucas Niang (August 6)
RB Damien Williams (July 29)

Las Vegas Raiders

LB Ukeme Eligwe (August 4)
CB D.J. Killings (August 3)
DE Jeremiah Valoaga (August 3)

Los Angeles Rams

OT Chandler Brewer (July 31)

Miami Dolphins

WR Allen Hurns (August 4)
WR Albert Wilson (August 5)

Minnesota Vikings

NT Michael Pierce (July 28)

New Orleans Saints

TE Jason Vander Laan (July 28)
TE Cole Wick (July 28)

New York Giants

CB Sam Beal (August 5)
WR Da'Mari Scott (August 2)
LT Nate Solder (July 29)

New York Jets

OL Leo Koloamatangi (July 28)
LB C.J. Mosley (August 1)

Philadelphia Eagles

WR Marquise Goodwin (July 28)

San Francisco 49ers

WR Travis Benjamin (August 4)

Seattle Seahawks

OG Chance Warmack (July 27)

Tennessee Titans

OL Anthony McKinney (July 28)

Washington Football Team

DT Caleb Brantley (July 27)
LB Josh Harvey-Clemons (August 3)

Free Agents

G Larry Warford (July 28)