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With trade to Buccaneers, Rob Gronkowski gets to return to the NFL on his own terms

Rob Gronkowski will be back with his favorite quarterback, this time in Tampa Bay.
Rob Gronkowski will be back with his favorite quarterback, this time in Tampa Bay.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

It took Rob Gronkowski 10 years, but he finally had the upper hand on the Patriots, and he took full advantage of it.

Gronkowski forced a trade to the Buccaneers Tuesday, coming out of retirement to join forces with Tom Brady once more. The Patriots had zero leverage in this deal, and got a measly fourth-round pick out of it (No. 139).

For Gronk, it had to feel satisfying to finally pull one over on the Patriots.

It was always a complicated relationship among Gronk, Bill Belichick, and Patriots management, ever since he signed an eight-year, $56 million contract in 2012. It sounded like a massive deal at the time, and it wasn’t a bad decision by Gronk; he entered the NFL as a major injury risk, and he didn’t know how long his back would hold up. But when Gronk blossomed into a perennial All-Pro, and stayed relatively healthy, it became one of the best value contracts in the NFL.

While Gronk never held out or made a big stink about his contract, it was clear over the latter half of his career that he felt underpaid and underappreciated by the Patriots.

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Gronkowski won three Super Bowls with the Patriots and will forever be associated with the organization, but his time in Foxborough did not end on a positive note. He didn’t like the sometimes joyless environment at Gillette Stadium, or that the Patriots made him grovel for nominal pay raises. Before the 2018 season, he squashed a trade to Detroit by threatening to retire.

Gronk finally did retire last year, walking away from one more year on his contract worth $10 million, a sign that he just didn’t want to be a Patriot anymore. His retirement caused sore feelings on the Patriots side, as it came two weeks into free agency, and hamstrung the team’s plans at tight end.

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Flash forward to this offseason, with Tom Brady joining the Bucs. That gave Gronk the perfect opportunity to finally get to play with Brady in a fun, pressure-free environment, and to get what he wants out of the Patriots.

Gronk reportedly told the Patriots this week that he wanted to un-retire and play again, but only for the Bucs. The Patriots had no choice but to grant him his wish.

Even though Gronk was retired, the Patriots still controlled his rights, and the remaining one year and $10 million on his contract. The Patriots obviously have moved on and don’t have a need for an expensive, aging tight end, so trading him wasn’t a tough decision.

In a perfect world for them, the Patriots would bring Gronk back onto their active list, sit on his rights, and wait for the best deal. But they don’t have the cap space to do that. They are dead last in the NFL with just $1.07 million in cap space, meaning they would have to make several moves just to fit Gronk back onto the ledger.

So they had no choice but to trade Gronk’s contract before he came out of retirement. And they had no choice but to take whatever offer the Bucs could give them, since Gronk said he would play only in Tampa Bay. And it wasn’t even a straight-up deal; the Patriots had to include one of their seventh-rounders.

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The Patriots probably are fine with the trade; Gronk wasn’t going to come back to Foxborough, so they just picked up an extra fourth-round pick for nothing, basically. The fourth round is where they found Trey Flowers and Shaq Mason in the 2015 draft.

It also gives them slightly more ammo to move up or down the draft board, and hopefully recoup the second-round pick they traded for Mohamed Sanu last season. Currently, the Patriots hold picks 23, 87, 98, 100, 125, and 139 in the top four rounds. Not great, but not terrible.

But the trade also shows how badly Gronk didn’t want to be a Patriot anymore. He walked away from $10 million last year instead of playing for Belichick, but is suddenly happy to play football again for a coach he doesn’t know.

Now the Bucs will be must-watch TV in 2020 (assuming there’s a season), with Brady again throwing passes to Gronk, plus uber-talented receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. It will rank with the 2007 Patriots as Brady’s most talented receiving corps, assuming Gronk still has some juice left.

Gronk, meanwhile, finally gets everything he ever wanted: A chance to play with Brady again; a chance to play in a relaxed, easygoing environment under Bruce Arians; and a chance to play in his adopted home state of Florida, where the weather is warm and state income taxes are nonexistent.

And he finally got to use his leverage and pull one over on the Patriots.

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Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.