For a brief moment, the New England Patriots boasted the best tight end combination in the NFL. But with Rob Gronkowski contemplating retirement and Martellus Bennett scheduled to receive a $2 million roster bonus on March 14, the Patriots could easily undergo a complete overhaul at one of their few positions of strength.
While Gronkowski mulls over hanging up his football cleats for wrestling boots, Bennett—who some believed was headed for retirement—made headlines last week by stating his desire to continue his playing career in 2018. Chalk that up as a mild surprise, especially considering the outspoken tight end stated back in October that he planned to retire following the 2017 season.
Despite his declaration, Bennett’s future in New England is very much up in the air.
Following the team’s Super Bowl victory against Atlanta, the 2008 second-round pick signed a three-year, $21 million deal to catch passes from Aaron Rodgers. Unfortunately, that plan did not work out. Rodgers missed most of the 2017 campaign with a broken collarbone, and Bennett’s tenure in Green Bay ended on a sour note after the team released him in November with a failure to designate an existing shoulder injury.
Just as they did with LeGarrette Blount, the Patriots wasted no time bringing Bennett back. But after hauling in six receptions in two games, the Patriots placed the talented tight end on injured reserve with a hamstring injury.
However, because the Patriots claimed Bennett on waivers, they are now faced with a tough decision to make over the next few weeks: Should they retain the Super Bowl champion?
There are several factors in play here, most notably the financial implication of bringing back a player who basically was invisible for most of the 2017 season. Bennett turns 31 on March 10, just four days before the Patriots would have to pay his hefty roster bonus.
On the other hand, the Patriots, who currently have under $13 million in cap space, could save $6.2 million by releasing Bennett. That cap flexibility could be critical in helping the Patriots re-sign some of their own free agents, including left tackle Nate Solder, running backs Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead, and wide receiver Danny Amendola. The team also has to consider long-term extensions for Brandin Cooks, Trey Flowers, Shaq Mason and Malcom Brown.
What makes this decision more difficult is the uncertainty surrounding Gronkowski. There is no doubt that the first-team All-Pro and future Hall of Famer is a far better player than Bennett, but if Gronkowski decides to walk away this offseason, that would leave the Patriots in a serious bind at the tight end spot. Releasing Bennett is a calculated risk considering nobody seems to have a firm grasp on Gronkowski’s future.
From an on-field standpoint, Bennett is certainly worth keeping around… at the right price. The 6-foot-6, 275-pounder is not quite the explosive athlete he was coming out of Texas A&M, but he’s still a valuable commodity due to his ability to block and catch passes. Most collegiate tight ends are glorified wide receivers, but the Patriots’ offensive system requires tight ends who can throw their weight around in the run game and pose a threat in the passing game.
A truly unique character with many off-field interests, Bennett is still a rare breed who should hold value to the Patriots. He has experience playing with Tom Brady—an element that should not be undersold. In addition, he can line up wide in the red zone or do damage from the slot. And when the team needs to get extra push in short-yardage situations, Bennett can be a devastating blocker when he’s healthy and motivated.
With all that in mind, bringing back Bennett is a complicated choice that has only been made more difficult by Gronkowski’s post-Super Bowl comments. He has the skill set and experience in the system to be a valuable contributor in 2018. At the same time, the Patriots need to cut costs and have a long-term view with so many key contributors in need of extensions or new deals.
If the Patriots have any inkling that Gronkowski may walk away, bringing back Bennett would be a wise fallback plan. However, given his own uncertain future and lack of production in 2017, Bennett would have to take a pay cut to remain in New England. Whether he is amenable to that solution is anyone’s guess, but considering Bill Belichick’s history, it is doubtful the Patriots would bring Bennett back under the current terms of his contract.
If he’s willing to restructure his deal, the Patriots should absolutely bring him back for another year. If Bennett plays hardball, the team should release him before the March 14 roster bonus deadline.
The offseason has barely begun, but it’s never a dull moment in Foxborough. The tight end position could undergo a complete rebuild, or we could just as easily see Gronkowski and Bennett back together in 2018. Your guess is as good as mine.