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How Will the Patriots Replace Rob Gronkowski?

He wasn’t just a five-tool tight end, but one who played at a high level in every aspect of the game. What Bill Belichick and the New England offense will need in its next tight end.

The Patriots’ next tight end doesn’t need to be the greatest of his generation (if not all time), but he does need to be a viable five-tool weapon. Rob Gronkowski could catch passes from a traditional line-of-scrimmage position, from a detached alignment and as a lone receiver on the weak side of a formation (where the Patriots masterfully featured him in the red zone). As a run-blocker he was sturdy along the trenches and phenomenal on the move. Whoever replaces Gronk need not be great, but he must be respectable in all five of these areas.

Recall in 2016 when injuries kept Gronkowski out of eight regular season games plus the Super Bowl run. Martellus Bennett, the rare “star journeyman,” filled in admirably and the offense didn’t miss a beat. Bennett was essentially an ersatz Gronkowski. He was a downgrade in every department, but only to a minor degree—he was a lesser player but still a five-tool tight end. With Bennett in, New England’s offensive approach did not change.

Besides Tom Brady, who can audible into and out of any play or formation, the tight end is the biggest component in New England’s schematically flexible offense. The Patriots bleed defenses to death because they can run the ball out of throwing personnel and especially because they can throw the ball out of running personnel. That only works with a five-tool tight end.

The problem is these tight ends are rare. The athletic threshold is higher, since you must be nimble enough to win in space yet also strong enough to win in traffic. New England’s pursuit of free agent Jared Cook (who has since chosen the Saints) made sense in that Cook could align anywhere as a receiver. For Brady, Cook would have been not just a target but an avenue of information, since a defense’s reaction to a quality receiving tight end’s alignment often reveals the coverage. But Cook is an inept blocker, and the insistent two-back running game that New England rode heavily down the stretch last year would have regressed.

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Still, Cook may have been the best of limited options. By now, the quality free-agent tight ends are gone (and it was debatable if a true five-tool weapon existed in this year’s group anyway). Even if the Pats, who, as usual, have hefty draft capital, fall in love with a tight end prospect, their system is not easy for a first-year player to learn. In a piece I did on Gronkowski before the 2016 season, Bill Belichick told me:

“The tight end position is, probably after quarterback, the hardest position to play in our offense. That’s the guy who does all the formationing. The running back is usually in the backfield. The receivers are receivers. But the tight ends could be in their tight end location, they could be in the backfield, they could be flexed. They could be in the wide position. To formation the defense, those are the guys you’re going to move. It’s moving the tight ends that changes the defensive deployment.” Belichick added that Gronkowski did an exceptional job with all of this.

Gronkowski’s football intellect was always underappreciated (a byproduct of the Gronk branding). Given third-string tight end Jacob Hollister’s familiarity with the offense, he could get significant consideration for replacing Gronkowski. Most likely, though, Gronkowski’s heir is not currently on New England’s roster, and the Patriots will have to pay a premium to change that.

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