Tom Brady sure knows how to make news and stir up Patriots fans during the NFL’s summer dead period.
First he worked out with suspended wide receiver Josh Gordon three weeks ago. Then he created an even bigger buzz this week when he had a throwing session with recently retired tight end Rob Gronkowski.
I already had my doubts about the future Hall of Famer staying retired, and after his Los Angeles workout with Brady, I’m convinced Gronkowski will be back this year after sitting out New England’s offseason program and missing training camp.
The fun-loving, popular Gronkowski has spent the offseason insisting he is done playing in the NFL after nine seasons. But let’s be realistic here.
If Gronk wanted to hang out with his buddy in LA, he and Brady could go to the beach or a good restaurant. The fact that they’re in football mode is the smoke that should soon turn into a fire upon Gronkowski’s return.
This scenario reminds me of former Vikings Pro Bowl running back Robert Smith’s approach to the offseason and training camp. After suffering two ACL tears early in his career, Smith believed skipping the offseason program, OTAs, minicamp and training camp would prevent wear-and-tear and improve his chances of staying healthy both in the season ahead and when his career was over.
Instead of taking Gronkowski’s approach and announcing his retirement, Smith would insist on signing one-year deals and then holding out in the ensuing training camp before finally signing two weeks before the regular-season opener.
As the Vikings’ general manager and contract negotiator at the time, I knew Smith would report in great condition, and I was quietly OK with his missing the preseason.
I think Bill Belichick feels the same way about Gronkowski, and the coach will welcome the tight end back with open arms in late August or early September.
Upon Gronk’s retirement in March, Belichick praised the tight end as a “great, great teammate, a major reason why we won games and championships and among the best, most complete players at his position to ever play.” Brady said he hoped to throw more than the 78 touchdown passes he already has tossed to Gronkowski. And Gronk’s agent Drew Rosenhaus said he “wouldn’t be shocked” if his client unretired.
Then things were relatively quiet – until last week, when Gronkowski made some frank comments to Rich Eisen on NFL Network.
“There’s definitely going to be times when you miss it,” Gronk said. “It’s still the offseason now. I can’t really say how I’m going to feel about it when the games start rolling around and everything.
“I just felt it was time. I feel really good right now. I’ve been playing football for 15 straight years of that grind. Just relaxing right now feels good.”
Yet there he was working out with Brady at UCLA, adding fuel to the rumors of a possible return.
Gronkowski has battled through numerous injuries in his career that resulted in surgeries on his knee, back and forearm. At 6-6 and playing at 268 pounds, he has been a unique receiving combination of size, speed and athleticism while also being a battering ram as an elite blocker. He was due to earn a $9 million base salary if he played in 2019. He also likely would have received additional incentives in his contract.
He is the only tight end in NFL history with three seasons of 1,000-plus receiving yards and 10 or more TDs (2011, 2014 and 2015). While it may be unlikely that he can produce at such a level again, at age 30, he is certainly capable of continuing to be a Pro Bowl-caliber player for the Patriots, especially with Brady still so efficient as a quarterback.
And don’t think Gronkowski surely is done playing simply because he is currently 18 pounds under his playing weight. He can add back that lost weight in a short period with a heavy dose of protein shakes, extra food intake and weight lifting. And as a long-time All-Pro, he can report in excellent shape as usual.
Ultimately, we’re talking about a player who loves the spotlight on and off the field. And we have to ask: How often does a player quit his or her sport when he or she is still capable of playing at a high level and, in Gronk’s case, commanding big bucks?
The answer is almost never.
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It’s perhaps telling that Belichick and the Patriots did not draft a tight end this year, and they did not sign a premier player at the position in free agency, either. Their presumed starting tight end for 2019 is 38-year-old Benjamin Watson, who began his career in New England, retired after playing in New Orleans last season and came out of retirement to sign with the Patriots in May.
But Watson must serve a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs, leaving free-agent signee Matt LaCosse – now with his fourth NFL team – next in line.
We know Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are masters at adjusting to offensive personnel changes, and even at 42, Brady will do a great job leading the attack. There’s plenty of talent among the receiving corps led by Julian Edelman and first-rounder N’Keal Harry, plus strong running and receiving support from the backfield trio of Sony Michel, James White and third-rounder Damien Harris.
Adding Gronkowski to that mix would once again make the Patriots lethal.
Gronkowski’s last comment in his NFL Network interview last week was to jokingly say the Patriots can “call me when you get to the playoffs.”
With this week’s Brady-Gronk practice session as a precursor, I think we can expect that call to come a lot earlier than January.
Jeff Diamond is a former president of the Titans and former vice president/general manager of the Vikings. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998. Diamond is currently a business and sports consultant who also does broadcast and online media work. He makes speaking appearances to corporate/civic groups and college classes on negotiation and sports business/sports management. He is the former chairman and CEO of The Ingram Group. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffdiamondNFL.
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