If one word will sum up the offseason for the New England Patriots, it will be succession. By retaining Josh McDaniels at the final hour, Robert Kraft ensured that there’s a succession plan in place whenever Bill Belichick decides to leave Foxborough.
With three of the top 63 picks in the draft, Belichick and McDaniels will likely spend one of those on a potential successor to Tom Brady.
But there’s a third succession plan that should unfold this offseason, one many Patriot fans probably never considered a realistic possibility prior to the night of Super Bowl LII: finding a successor to Rob Gronkowski.
The 28-year-old is coming off another dominant campaign in which he caught 69 passes for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns while staying healthy. In the playoffs, Gronkowski hauled in another 16 catches for 218 yards and three more scores, proving to be an unstoppable force in the second half of the Super Bowl loss to Philadelphia.
Yet, in his postgame remarks, Gronkowski mysteriously said he needed to take time to look at his future, reflect on the season, and see what happens next.
Not exactly the words Patriot Nation expected or wanted to hear from the 2017 first-team All-Pro tight end.
After wrapping up his eighth NFL season, it’s entirely fair to defend Gronkowski’s contemplation about retirement. For every one of his 76 regular season touchdown receptions, he has endured numerous bone-crunching hits that have resulted in a laundry list of injuries. The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder’s surgical history includes multiple back operations and an ACL/MCL reconstruction.
He also endured several setbacks with his broken forearm that he suffered in November of 2012; they necessitated three additional surgeries. Oh, and let’s not forget the two documented concussions (including one in this year’s AFC Championship Game), plus the high ankle sprain that required surgery after New England’s second Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants.
Simply put: Gronk’s 28-year-old body probably feels twice its age.
Despite spending so much time under the knife, the former second-round pick has always managed to return and remind everyone why he is a Hall of Fame lock. A healthy Gronk is the most difficult one-on-one matchup in the NFL, and there really is no one who comes close. His superior combination of size, speed, strength, and athleticism makes him nearly impossible to stop when he and Brady are on the same page.
However, the mounting number of injuries and the looming possibility of a career in Hollywood or the WWE appears to be a legitimate option for the soon-to-be 29-year-old. Some have postulated that the wrestling and movie rumors are just a smart contract ploy. Others maintain that Gronk retiring this offseason or in the very near future is almost a foregone conclusion. I tend to think it’s somewhere in the middle… which makes this draft even more important for New England’s long-term plans at tight end.
While there certainly is not a plug-and-play replacement for a Hall of Fame player like Gronk, that does not mean the Patriots should not consider drafting his successor in April. The team has obviously gotten by in years past without its No. 1 weapon, but that was always with the mindset of him getting healthy and back on the field.
This time, though, Gronk could walk away for good, leaving behind a depth chart with the following names: Martellus Bennett, Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister and Will Tye.
The 30-year-old Bennett finished the year on injured reserve and appears headed for retirement himself. Allen was a solid blocker, but offered nothing in the passing game and will likely be cut outright or brought back on a reduced rate. Hollister made the team as an undrafted free agent, caught four passes, and mostly spent the year as a game-day inactive. Tye was on the practice squad and never built on two years as a starter with the Giants.
Whether Gronk intends on retiring this offseason or even the next, the Patriots—as they typically do—should prepare a year early for his departure. While that plan has often resulted in Belichick trading or cutting a player, that won’t happen with Gronk.
Instead, Belichick, McDaniels and Nick Caserio should spend time scouting the top tight ends in the 2018 draft class. The team could take an approach similar to what it did with Matt Light. Belichick picked Nate Solder with the 17th pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, and after filling in as a spot starter, he took over for Light the following year.
Obviously the longer a healthy Gronkowski sticks around the better, but it seems unlikely that he will be around for more than a few years, let alone in the post-Brady era. With that reality in play, finding his successor should be on the priority list this offseason.