Dominick Petrillo @envisioniff
The Big Gronkowski:
What is next in New England?
With Rob Gronkowski announcing his retirement from the NFL, two questions come to mind. Is he a hall of famer? Yes, but this is a discussion for a different site, and what is next for the Patriots?
We always hear about the Patriot way and the next man up mentality. This is fine when it is players like Wes Welker or Malcolm Butler but what about a transcendent player like Gronkowski? Does this mentality still hold true or is this the end of the evil empire which has ruled over the league for almost two decades.
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still there so we know this will not be the end but there will be a big hole to fill in the offense. A hole much bigger than the 6’6” and the 265-pound area he physically occupied on the field of play. Not only is he the best and most dominant tight end of this generation in the pass game but he was also a monster in the run blocking game. A trait which is overlooked due to his other areas of excellence.
So how is he going to be replaced in the offense? The easy answer is he won’t. This, while technically true is a cop-out answer and also not true as he will need to be replaced somehow. Whether they think Jacob Hollister is the replacement or if they take a tight end in the draft to pair with him the tight end position will need to be addressed before the season for the Patriots to move forward.
Replacing someone who averaged nine touchdowns and 900 yards per season will take a team effort. It will take not only the tight end position, but also more work from the running backs out of the backfield, not to mention even more targets for Julian Edelman in the slot. The offensive line will also have to take a step up in the protection of Brady as Gronkowski will not be there to help to block for the ageless wonder. Getting Josh Gordon back on the field should he be reinstated will be valuable with the New England not adding any offensive weapons during free agency. They made a supposed play for Golden Tate and if it is to be believed, Antonio Brown, perhaps knowing this was going to happen but both fell through leaving a lot of work to be done now.
The biggest beneficiaries of the retirement should be the previously mentioned Julian Edelman and the overlooked James White who could now catch 10 balls a game all season instead of just in the Super Bowl. Sony Michel is sure to continue to grow in his second season and this is good as they will need to rely more on the run game and less on the arm of Brady with fewer weapons and his advancing age.
One good thing about Gronkowski retiring this offseason is the draft. Not only do the Patriots have the most draft picks of any team with 12 but this is considered by many as the best tight end draft class since, well since the 2010 class of Gronkowski himself.There are three possible first-round tight ends in this draft. The Iowa duo of Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson are likely to be gone when the Patriots draft at number 32 but the player who Matt Waldman considers the most likely to succeed should still be available.
Irv Smith Jr. who is not the best in any one category but is great in all of them is the man in the draft who could fit perfectly into the offense and make an immediate impact. If he is drafted by the Patriots, which based on the relationship between Belichick and Nick Saban is likely to happen, Smith would be in consideration for a top 10 fantasy season.
At 6’4” and 241 pounds, Smith is smaller than Gronkowski but still has ample size and coming from the Alabama run offense can be a solid blocker as well as pass catcher. Don’t expect him to get 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns like Gronkowski seemingly did every season but, in this day, and age of overall mediocre play at the position, he should still garner numbers befitting a draft pick and even a starting slot in your fantasy league. A season of 60 for 750 and six is not out of the realm should he go to New England. If he doesn’t go there and the Patriots decide on Jacob Hollister, well, Hollister could do the same thing in this offense. Unless Martellus Bennett follows Jason Witten out of retirement.