Friday, February 17, 2017

Reloading The Musket, Part 3 - Tight End Position In Flux Pending Gronk, Bennett Assessment

Rob Gronkowski is a singular talent.

A bit jaded on the injury front, perhaps, and some would say his off-field behavior borders on puerile - but when the guy is on the football field, he is a weapon capable of previously unimaginable ruin. He has speed to not only challenge the seam, but also to take a defender deep down the sideline - a speed that belies his gargantuan size and lumbering style.

Gronkowski could legitimately play right tackle in a pinch, such is his road grading skill that features the athleticism and grit to pull into the middle of the line and trade shots with run-plugging linebackers - but the most aesthetically pleasing part of Gronkowski's game is watching him punish defenses with the ball in his hands, after the catch.

He's a big target, both to quarterback Tom Brady and, unfortunately, defenses alike.

Gronkowski has played in eighty-eight of a possible 112 games since coming into the league, his two dozen games missed attributed to a broken forearm that lingered through parts of two seasons and a torn ACL that sapped half of another, plus another couple of games here and there to manage his health.

Gronkowski plays an all-or-nothing style of football, combining his aforementioned freakish ability with a bully's mentality and a nose for the end zone - accounting for almost 6,100 yards and 68 touchdowns in his seven-year career (yes, it's been that long), a pace that will make him the greatest tight end in the history of the national football league, statistically speaking, midway through his eleventh season so far as touchdowns are concerned...

...but it will take ten more seasons to match record holder Tony Gonzalez in receptions and yardage - which seems out of reach when considering Gronkowski's injury history, which now includes time missed for a slipped disk in his back.

The back issue isn't a new thing, however.  Gronkowski missed his entire 2009 season - his Junior year at the University of Arizona - after having surgery for a slipped disk.  He declared for the NFL rather than redshirt and while a first-round talent in the eyes of many, coming off a season lost to a potentially debilitating  injury saw him fall right into New England's lap in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft.

So, it isn't as if the Patriots were not aware of his injury history when they drafted him, nor when they signed him to the then-most lucrative contract ever for a tight end before the 2012 season which pays him $9 million annually, on average, and the team took steps to protect themselves long-term in case Gronkowski's body broke down beyond repair.

So any talk or speculation of the Patriots trying to rid themselves of Gronkowski is a fool's errand, considering that he counts only $6.75 million against the cap in 2017, a bargain basement number when compared to his production when he's on the field - and is, in fact, just the fifth-highest number in the league among tight ends.

But what makes Gronkowski taboo so far as trading him is concerned is that $6 million of that figure is guaranteed, and to trade him would invoke a dead money hit for the entire guaranteed number - which is a huge hit to the salary cap for a player that is no longer on the roster.  In the end, Gronkowski will be a Patriot come September, so don't believe all of the ignorant rumors being bandied about.

That said, and Gronkowski aside, for a team that values their tight ends as much or more than any other in the league, the New England Patriots sure have a lot of question marks headed into the offseason.

The main question revolves around Martellus Bennett, who qualifies as a both journeyman and a nomad. A journeyman, because he plies his trade as a reliable pass catcher and blocker, but also a nomad because the Patriots are his fourth team in nine years, and his third team in the last five seasons.

Bennett jokingly said after the Super Bowl that "Teams overpay for Super Bowl Champions", then tweeted later in the evening that he was in jest - but chasing money is something that the man who calls himself the "Black Unicorn" has a history of, which is why not everyone is buying his amendment.

After four seasons of playing behind Jason Whitten in Dallas, Bennett signed a one-year "Prove it" type of contract with the New York Giants since his numbers in Dallas were limited due to lack of targets, and he excelled in New York as the tight end on the roster, then cashed in with Chicago on a four year, $20 million contract with the Bears that made him the 16th highest paid tight end in the league.

But after his second season in Chicago, when his 90 catch season landed him in the Pro Bowl - ironically as Gronkowski's replacement since he was committed to the Super Bowl - Bennett held out of camp in 2015 looking for more money, ended up on the wrong side of Jon Fox's and Adam Gase's dog house and ended up being traded to the Patriots after the season.

That brings up an interesting little tidbit that may or may not turn out to be relevant, as the Miami Dolphins have publicly stated - unsolicited, mind you - that Bennett was not a candidate for the tight end-needy Dolphins, and that is believed to be in regard to Gase being the head coach.  How much of that, if any, will resonate with other teams looking for a tight end when his former offensive coordinator with the Bears refuses to have anything to do with him?

Bennett is outspoken, for certain, and has openly trashed the Bears organization, saying that "We just had a bunch of bitches on the roster.  That's why we didn't win games, and coaches liked the bitches." - and this after Gase offered the highest praise of Bennett, calling him "almost as good as most left tackles" in the NFL for his pass protection skill.

The median wage for starting tight ends in the National Football League is $7.3 million per season, and Bennett has already rejected a multi-year offer from the Patriots that would have paid him seven million annually, and could probably sweeten that a little bit to take him into the top six salaries in the league at around eight million - but they are not going to go above and beyond Gronkowski's nine million annually, nor should they.

The wildcard for Bennett, however, is that Seattle is pondering letting go of under-performing Jimmy Graham and his best-in-the-league salary - a move that, if true, could cut in two different directions.  First, with Graham on the market it could cut into Bennett's value on the open market as well as restricting his options - but on the other hand, releasing Graham would make the Seahawks a prime landing spot for the Black Unicorn, uniting him with his older brother, Seahawk defensive end, Michael.

New England could put all speculation to rest by assigning their franchise tag to Bennett and pay him a little over $9 million, guaranteed, for the 2017 season - a move that may not set well with Gronkowski, who has hinted that he wouldn't say no to a pay raise.

Madness, all of it, but it doesn't end there.

The Patriots signed former Cardinals' tight end Rob Housler to a futures contract after the Super Bowl - but Housler bring nothing in the blocking scheme and is essentially a really tall wide receiver - and the Patriots already have Matt Lengel on the roster, but he is more of an in-line blocker and offers very little in the passing game - and the New England can't afford to be one-dimensional with their weapons in that manner...

...but with Bennett being The Catch in a very weak free agent market, he could be right that a team would over pay him, so then the Patriots would have to turn to the draft to snag anything worth putting on the field opposite Gronkowski in 2017.

The top of the class promotes Alabama's O.J. Howard as number one on the big board, but he is more of a Housler type, with great hands and decent speed, but offers nothing in pass pro or run blocking.  Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram is a second day possibility as his size, speed and playing style would remind Patriots' fans of their long lost thug Aaron Hernandez, who was on his way to superstardom before going on a murderous rampage.

Miami's David Njoku is already considered a first round pass catching talent, and blocks well enough to be taken early as a project of an all-around tight end, and probably has the most potential in the tight end class.  But the best prospect for the Patriots is probably Virginia Tech's Bucky Hodges, a fast, athletic pass catcher who, like most tight ends coming out of college these days, is more of an overgrown wide receiver, but at 6' 7" and 245 pounds, he has some toughness in the blocking scheme.

There are other college prospects that offer mid-round athleticism, like Ohio State's Jake Butt, Arkansas' Jeremy Sprinkle (who is a mid-round sleeper), and Ashland College behemoth Adam Shaheen at 6' 6" and a massive 277 pounds is a freakish red zone target and good run blocker, and Florida International's Jonnu Smith is a "move" tight end prospect with electric moves and wide receiver speed, plus is an outstanding blocker.

Obviously, there are more prospects, but the Patriots need to assess Gronkowski's availability and Bennett's psyche before considering their next move at the position.

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