FOXBOROUGH — Rob Gronkowski waded nervously into the conversation about his new, amended contract on Tuesday afternoon. These are dangerous waters in Gillette Stadium.
“That was last week, and now that’s in the past, which is good,” Gronkowski said of his new deal, signed last Thursday. “Just going to put my main focus on the Houston Texans.”
Gronkowski didn’t want to seem ungrateful or upset about the peace that has been brokered between him and the Patriots. He didn’t quite get what he wanted, but he got a chance to earn extra money and become the highest-paid tight end in the league this year.
“I mean, I’m super satisfied with my situation,” he said.
But the truth briefly escaped out of Gronkowski’s mouth. He was asked about his reaction to the fact that many players across the league have received big contracts over the last month — players such as Aaron Donald, who held out from the Rams and received a record-breaking contract; Khalil Mack, who got his massive deal after a trade to the Bears; or Julio Jones, who threatened a holdout and received a fat new deal from the Falcons.
Gronkowski acknowledged that holding out, or the threat of it, seemed to work for just about everyone who tried it.
“I mean, if I wasn’t [happy], I would try and pull a move like they do, which works out,” he said. “You get rewarded for holding out.”
Gronkowski quickly caught himself.
“But I’m not frustrated at all or anything,” he said. “I’m super satisfied and just ready to go, ready to play. That’s my main focus.”
Gronkowski didn’t hold out, though he did forgo a $250,000 workout bonus this offseason by skipping workouts (and the Patriots didn’t forgive his absence, like the Rams did with Donald’s fines for skipping training camp).
And the Patriots didn’t really show Gronk the love.
They are giving him extra money but making him earn it the hard way, for the second year in a row.
Last year, they gave him a $5.5 million incentive package on top of his salary, and he earned every dime.
This year, he was fighting for guaranteed money. And he used every tactic in the book. Gronk hinted at retirement right after the Super Bowl. He skipped the offseason program, forgoing that $250,000 bonus. He then was an angel during training camp, hoping that good behavior would earn him the guaranteed dollars — and respect — he was seeking.
The negotiations went all the way down to the final day of the preseason, but the Patriots held firm. They gave him $4.3 million in additional money, but it is entirely incentive-based. And he has to put up good numbers — $3.3 million of the incentives are basically set at the exact statistics Gronk compiled last year, when he was First Team All-Pro.
The other $1 million is tied up in roster bonuses — an extra $62,500 for every game he plays. This was a minor victory for Gronkowski, extra money that is based solely on being active on game day. In last year’s incentive package, he didn’t receive any roster bonuses.
Gronk said it’s definitely a relief to have this process over with after months of negotiating.
“Everything is always in the works,” he said. “Nothing’s just going to happen in a day, something like that. It’s in the past now. It happened last week. It’s go time now, that’s all.”
But privately, Gronkowski can’t be thrilled about how it all turned out. He looks around the league and he sees the Falcons ripping up Jones’s deal with three years left on it, and players such as Aaron Rodgers, Odell Beckham, Brandin Cooks, Mack, and Donald getting major deals with massive guaranteed pay-outs.
But Gronk couldn’t force the Patriots’ hand. His reward for five Pro Bowls, four All-Pros, and contributions to two Super Bowl championships was a modest incentive package. The Patriots have had Gronkowski on favorable terms for years, and they aren’t about to give away their leverage. Tom Brady only got an incentive package in his new deal, so that’s all there would be for Gronk.
Privately, Gronk probably wishes he made more of a holdout threat at the start of training camp.
Because here’s what his new contract boils down to:
■ Gronk will make $8 million this year no matter what. But if he plays in all 16 games, and matches his statistics from last year, Gronk will make $13.05 million – or $50,000 more than Jimmy Graham, the current highest-paid tight end.
■ Between his $8 million base salary and $1.75 million in roster bonuses (he already had one for $750,000 on the books), Gronk has the chance to earn about $580,000 per week of the regular season. But every game he misses means $109,375 taken out of his paycheck. That’s certainly enough to keep him motivated.
■ The move actually increases Gronk’s 2018 salary cap number from $10.9 million to $11.78 million. But if he earns the other $3.3 million incentives, it will go on next year’s salary cap, not this year’s.
So it’s a no-risk proposition for the Patriots. And Gronkowski will have to put together a major, All-Pro type of year to earn his extra money.
Oh, and Gronkowski and the Patriots are probably going to do this same dance next year, because they didn’t negotiate anything for 2019. Get ready for more retirement talk this February.
Gronk said the right things on Tuesday, trying not to stoke any flames.
“I feel pretty good,” he said. “Just been enjoying myself, coming in, working hard out on the practice field, enjoying the time out there. Just feel good, and super excited for the game coming up.”
But he can’t be super excited about the Patriots’ refusal to give him guaranteed money.