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PHOENIX — As the Patriots know well, Rob Gronkowski is one player you don’t just replace.
“The most dominant player at his position for nearly a decade,” is how owner Robert Kraft has described him.
“His elite combination of size, skill, intelligence, toughness, and ability to perform in pressure situations set him apart,” Bill Belichick said. “Rob was a major reason why we won games and championships.”
Even in 2018, when nine NFL seasons and myriad surgeries were taking their toll, Gronkowski was still a reliable receiver, a dominant run blocker, and a workhorse when his team needed him, playing 246 of 252 snaps in the Patriots’ postseason run.
“He is one of the very few players who could control the game offensively in the pass and run game,” Josh McDaniels said. “There will never be another Gronk.”
Gronkowski’s retirement gives the Patriots some much-needed breathing room against the salary cap, creating about $9.5 million in space. And it gives them an extra $10 million in real money to play with.
But the timing could have been better. Had this come two weeks ago, before the beginning of NFL free agency, perhaps the Patriots would have made a bigger play for a tight end such as Jesse James, who signed with Detroit, or Jared Cook, who is on the verge of signing with the Saints. But the few starting-caliber players at the position have been snapped up, so Belichick will have to get creative.
Let’s take a look at the Patriots’ options to replace Gronkowski:
1. Gronk himself — Just 12 hours after Gronk announced his retirement Sunday, agent Drew Rosenhaus was already on ESPN, planting the seeds of a Gronk comeback this fall.
“Rob is 29 years old,” said Rosenhaus. “He’s still a very young man. It wouldn’t shock me if he has a change of heart, if he feels great and he decides that he wants to play football.
“If the team was struggling or they needed him at some point next year, and let’s just say hypothetically Tom Brady gave him a call and said, ‘Rob, I need you,’ I wouldn’t be shocked if he came back to play a few games.”
Of course, this depends on Gronkowski staying in reasonable football shape this summer. And Belichick having confidence that Gronk’s body can still withstand the beating. And the team not finding someone else to take Gronk’s roster spot.
But all things considered, the best replacement for Gronk in 2019 is probably Gronk himself.
“I said, ‘Rob, just keep in mind that if you ever have a change of heart, you can come back and play,’ ” Rosenhaus said. “ ‘I’m sure the Patriots would welcome you with open arms. If it’s sometime during the season. If it’s late in the year. If you feel good and want to come back and play, we’ll make it happen.’ ”
2. Rely on the current guys — The Patriots do have other tight ends on the roster. Just not anyone you’ve really heard of.
The one with the most name recognition is Jacob Hollister, an undrafted rookie in 2017. He has eight catches in two NFL seasons. The most accomplished is Matt LaCosse, a fifth-year journeyman and recent signing. LaCosse caught 24 passes for 250 yards and a touchdown last year for Denver.
Stephen Anderson spent all of last year on the Patriots’ practice squad, but had 36 catches for 435 yards and two touchdowns in two seasons with Houston. Ryan Izzo, last year’s seventh-round pick (250th overall), spent all of 2018 on injured reserve and has yet to play an NFL snap.
All of which is to say: The Patriots have a bunch of backup tight ends, but no one who should be penciled in as a starter.
3. Sign one of the remaining free agents — Here are 10 tight ends still available, not including Antonio Gates, who isn’t coming to New England: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Levine Toilolo, Maxx Williams, Dion Sims, Jermaine Gresham, Lance Kendricks, Michael Hoomanawanui, A.J. Derby, Luke Willson, and Richard Rodgers.
Not exactly the most inspiring list. The most intriguing name is Seferian-Jenkins, a former second-round pick who has had decent production in five NFL seasons with the Bucs, Jets, and Jaguars. He has the size (6 feet 5 inches, 262 pounds) to replace Gronk and is only 26 years old. Seferian-Jenkins played only five games last year after suffering a core muscle injury and might be a decent one-year gamble.
Rodgers, a former Packer, also is worth a look.
Otherwise, none of the players available can be considered a starting-caliber tight end. Knowing the Patriots, they’ll sign three players we’ve never heard of.
4. Trade for a veteran — Belichick has done well in the past with the trade market, and has 12 draft picks this year — including two second-round picks and three third-rounders — to use as ammunition.
At first glance, there aren’t many obvious trade candidates. The Patriots should check in with the Vikings about Kyle Rudolph, who will be 30 in November and is set to make $7.625 million in the final year of his deal.
The Giants may be willing to part with Rhett Ellison, who has two years and $9.5 million left on his deal. But Ellison caught only 25 passes for 272 yards and a touchdown last year, and isn’t exactly a Gronk replacement.
Other tight ends may become available via trade after the NFL Draft in late April, but for now it’s hard to identify too many candidates.
5. Draft a tight end with a top pick — This seems like the obvious choice. And this is supposed to be a great year for tight ends, with three elite talents and several midround prospects.
Two names jump off the page: T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, both of Iowa. Belichick is close friends with Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who coached on Belichick’s Cleveland staff 25 years ago. Iowa also runs a pro-style offense that requires the tight ends to block.
But landing Hockenson or Fant won’t be easy. Both are considered elite talents, and are likely to be drafted well before the Patriots pick at No. 32, meaning they would have to make a big trade up to get one of them.
The other potential first-round talent for the Patriots is Alabama’s Irv Smith, who also plays for a close friend of Belichick’s (Nick Saban) and also plays in a pro-style offense. But Smith measured at 6-2, 242 pounds, at the combine, which probably isn’t big enough to be an in-line tight end in the New England offense.
If the Patriots don’t end up with one of those three, they have several midround options, including UCLA’s Caleb Wilson, San Jose State’s Josh Oliver, Notre Dame’s Alize Mack, Michigan’s Zach Gentry, Stanford’s Kaden Smith, and Missouri’s Kendall Blanton.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin