Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Reloading The Musket, Part 2 - Gronkowski, Bennett Form Lethal Pairing For Patriots...

Quick, off the top of your head: What teams in the NFL have a tight end as their number one receiving threat?

Well, legitimately, you could list Jimmy Graham for the Seahawks, Greg Olsen for the Carolina Panthers, Gary Barnidge of the Browns, Delanie Walker of the Titans, and Jordan Reed of the Redskins, with names like Travis Kelse of the Chiefs, Zach Ertz of the Eagles and Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph as up-and-coming names...

That's quite a list, and as few as five or six seasons ago if a team had a tight end as their top receiving target, that team was in big trouble offensively - unless of course you were the Kansas City Chiefs with Tony Gonzalez or the San Diego Chargers with the still venerable Antonio Gates - but in the modern-day National Football League, if you don't have a dominant tight end, your team is now in big trouble offensively.

So the New England Patriots' offense is not quite unique in that the number one target in the Passing game is a tight end. They are, however, the only team that has ever successfully implemented a two-tight end attack as a base set, and now they are on the cusp of doing it once again.

In 2010, Patriots' head ball coach and defacto General Manager Bill Belichick drafted what would turn out to be perhaps one of the most exciting pair of "skill position" players in NFL history, but also one of the most star-crossed, as the paring of Rob Gronkowski out of Arizona and Aaron Hernandez from the University of Florida took Patriots' fans on an emotional roller coaster ride that they'll never forget.

Well documented, Gronkowski suffered multiple horrific injuries during a 14 month period between the 2012 and 2013 seasons, with Hernandez being arrested on murder charges just before training camp in 2013 - effectively ending the lethal twin tight end attack and, in fact, leaving New England without an effective tight end presence until Gronkowski returned to the lineup for the 2014 Super Bowl season.

Since then, Gronkowski has been terrorizing the league with an unprecedented run that has him third in NFL history in touchdown receptions with 65, despite having played in just 80 games and with only 380 receptions.  Even more impressive are his post-season numbers, his nine touchdowns on 52 receptions in just 10 games - tops in the history of the game...

...but 60% of those touchdowns came before Hernandez was exposed as a murderous thug, the drop in red zone production a clear indicator that he's doing most of his work without a complimentary entity.

Of course, the passing game is headlined by the four-time All Pro Gronkowski and clutch wideout Julian Edelman catching lasers from the ageless Tom Brady - but after those two, there are differing opinions on who will fill out the depth charts, and who on those depth charts fills what purpose in Belichick's evil scheme, but in whatever direction Belichick decides to go one thing is certain: The offense will look very different than it has the past few years.

On one hand you have the milk drinkers who are still seeking that deep threat who can take the top off of a defense with pure speed, running under Brady's deep offering and gliding into the end zone, pinning their hopes on veteran speedster Keshawn Martin, free agent Nate Washington and rookie fourth-round pick Malcolm Mitchell out of Georgia...

...while the whiskey crowd wants the power game, running the football with authority and balancing the play calling to force the defense to defend the entire field.

But in reality, New England can satiate the longings of both camps with their tight end corps alone.

The Patriots do already have a deep threat - two, in fact - but they aren't blazing young greyhounds and their style can hardly be called "gliding"- they are tight ends, the two of them, and they own the seam.

With Gronkowski already a known commodity - and with Belichick's eyes securely on a return to the two-tight end attack - the Dark Master made a deal with the Chicago Bears to secure the services of former Pro Bowl tight end Martellus Bennett, who is now on his fourth team in nine seasons, but that doesn't tell his entire story.

After being drafted by Dallas in the second round of the 2008 draft and spending four statistically uneventful seasons with the Cowboys, Bennett exploded onto the scene with the New York Giants on a one year rental, something that could have happened three years earlier when the Cincinnati Bengals offered the Cowboys a first-round draft pick to acquire Bennett after failing to pick up a top tight end in the 2009 draft.

Dallas declined and kept Bennett behind future Hall of Fame tight end Jason Whitten, and became an excellent blocker to earn his keep, but Bennett's statistical success in New York and the past three seasons in Chicago confirmed the Bengals' suspicions about Bennett being far more than roster depth, as he has averaged 66 receptions per season since leaving Dallas, where he averaged a puny 22 per campaign backing up Whitten.

The past four seasons, he has been nobody's depth, though Bears' coach John Fox benched him for almost half of last season when he stated complaining about wanting more money, Fox inserting free agent pick up Zach Miller as the starter in week 11 and unceremoniously stashing Bennett on the IR with a rib injury - though he complained bitterly about the move - then put him up for bids on the open market.

What does it say about the free-spirited Bennett that the Patriots were his only suitor, and got him for a fourth-round draft pick, but only after Chicago sweetened the deal by throwing in a 6th round pick?

More than anything else, it means that Belichick once again has played a trump card on the rest of the league.  No one else wanted an eight-year veteran who was entering a contract year with the knowledge that he is seeking more than the $5 million per season that he averages on his current contract.

On the surface, it didn't make sense for the Patriots financially, as they already have a hefty contract on the books for Gronkowski, who made a few waves when he tweeted what was considered by the media a cryptic notion that he felt he was underpaid after the Patriots picked up a $10 million option on his contract.

When the Patriots offered Gronkowski his current contract, the six-year, $54 million deal was, at the time, the richest for a tight end in NFL history, opening the door for the Jimmy Graham's and Travis Kelse's of the world - and while his deal has been bested by Graham, Kelse, Jordan Reed and Julius Thomas, it is still the richest in actual dollar amount in the league.

When the Patriots picked up his $10 million option this past March that will keep him in Foxborough through the 2020 season, Gronkowski playfully suggested that it was a pay cut and that he doesn't work hard for those reasons.  His tweet caused a surge of idiocy throughout football chat rooms that Gronkowski would hold out of camp for a better deal...

...and all of that stemming from a four-year, $29.4 million contract given to mediocre tight end Dwayne Allen by Indianapolis.  If the idiots who started those rumors could do math -and if they weren't such idiots in the first place - they would have seen that Allen's deal is almost $2 million per year short of Gronkowski's annual pay.

That said, Gronkowski is being paid like a number one receiver, his yearly haul would be the 11th richest in the NFL among wide receivers - and coupled with the fact that Gronkowski claims he hasn't even touched his NFL salary and has been living the high life off his endorsement bones means that money is the last thing on the mind of the man-child.

The player who should be complaining, but isn't - at least not to the Patriots - is newly acquired Martellus Bennett, who is making just over half of the bones Gronkowski is hauling in and is obligated to the Patriots for just the 2016 season.  Bennett turned 29 years old just days after being traded to New England, and will be seeking what could possibly be his last big payday in 2017 free agency.

Star crossed his entire career, Bennett will be looking for a breakout campaign with the Patriots.  The four years he spent with Dallas after being drafted by the Cowboys in 2008 were a statistical disaster, and even though he was offered the same money to stay in Dallas as depth to Jason Whitten as he was offered by the New York Giants, he left Dallas for a chance to start in NewYork and enjoyed his finest season in his career to that point.

Still, one decent year in New York only netted Bennett a four-year, $20 million contract on the open market, which he proceeded to outperform, eventually making the Pro Bowl in 2014.  Buoyed with success and statistical leverage, he held out during OTA's last season in an attempt to get more money on a new contract, but all it got him was "benched" with a rib injury and eventually placed on the Bears' IR, even though he disputed the extent of the injury.

Approaching his 30's Bennett will be lucky to get Dwayne Allen money, let along Gronkowski money, and will probably be available for right around $6 million a year, which is affordable, given New England's reliance on tight ends.

In fact, if one remembers correctly, the Patriots also gave Hernandez a five-year, $40 million contract extension just weeks after signing Gronkowski to his extension, and while neither of those contacts kicked in until after their original rookie deals were satisfied, the organization was on the hook for essentially $17 million a year for the two tight ends...

...which would have been worth the price paid had Gronkowski not been hurt and had Hernandez not been discovered to be a punk with a bad temper and an affinity for firearms.

But make no mistake, this is not the re-birth of the scheme that Belichick envisioned in 2012 as Hernandez and Bennett have differing skill sets.  Bennett's skill set is more along the lines of what Gronkowski brings to the lineup, both matchup nightmares due to their size and speed and blocking ability and given the fact that Bennett has racked up over a thousand after-the-catch yards since he signed with the Bears, second only to - you guessed it - Gronkowski.

At 6' 7" and 248 pounds, Bennett is the Robin to Gronkowski's Batman, forming a formidable one-two punch up the seam - and that's what makes this matchup potentially even more lethal than the one formed by Gronkowski and Hernandez, especially when considering the rest of the talent on the roster, which includes former Eagle and Jaguar Clay Harbor.

Harbor has never lived up to his lofty, albeit Division II, promise in the NFL, being under-used in Philadelphia (where have we heard that one before?) and purely as depth in Jacksonville, but will find New England more to his liking as a "move" tight end and H-back - and even with all of the pass catching talent on the Patriots' roster, he should enjoy a career year...

...which isn't much of a stretch, considering his top statistical season was a 26-catch campaign with Jacksonville in 2014.  Harbor is also a decent in-line blocker, and should see the field mostly in short-yardage situations as either part of the Jumbo package or in the spread, where Belichick could look to tax the opposition's linebacker depth.

There are other tight ends on the roster in sophomore A.J. Derby and the tackle-sized Michael Williams, but both will be hard-pressed to make the final roster - in fact, the way the Patriots' offense looks to be structured will have an impact not just on the fringe depth at tight end, but probably will impact the receiving corps and depth at offensive tackle...

...as Bennett will take a roster spot from at least one of the swing tackles and from one of the wide outs, as his blocking ability on the edge combined with his pass catching prowess gives Belichick some roster flexibility and given the fact that he will rarely come off the field.

Besides, how many receivers do the Patriots really need with Bennett effectively functioning as a third option after Gronkowski and Julian Edelman?  We'll tackle that question in the next installment...

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