Two days following the NFL draft, the current Patriots tight end depth chart is pretty scary.
It has Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Stephen Anderson, Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo and Andrew Beck following Jacob Hollister being traded to the Seahawks on Monday and the team not drafting one over the weekend. The current group had a combined 35 catches last season and it includes two players (Izzo and Beck) who have never played in a NFL game.
Going into the offseason, it seemed likely Rob Gronkowski was going to retire and the Patriots would need to replace him. But, the way it all went down gave them hope he would actually come back and because of it weren’t as aggressive in adding tight ends as they could have and would have been.
Here’s how it all went down.
Immediately following the Super Bowl, Gronkowski said he wasn’t in a position to make any kind of announcement.
"Tonight it's about celebrating with my teammates. And that decision will be made in a week or two," he said.
Two weeks later, his agent Drew Rosenhaus went on ESPN’s NFL Live and said Gronkowski needed more time, but it gave more hope than ever before that he would actually return, as during the season it seemed almost 100 percent certain that it would be his final season.
“I checked in with Gronk a couple of days ago. I talked with the Patriots about it," Rosenhaus said. "Right now, Rob is thinking it through. He is giving it a lot of thought. Rob will certainly I think make a decision in the foreseeable future. I don’t want to put any pressure on him and give him a timeframe, but I would imagine it will be sometime in the next couple of weeks.”
Roughly a month went by without an update or indication one way or the other from Gronkowski and his camp until two days before free agency Rosenhaus went on NFL Live again.
"I talked to Rob last night," Rosenhaus said. "He won't even tell me. He said he hasn't made a decision yet. He is healthy, which I'm excited to say. He's feeling a lot better. He plays through an injury in the Super Bowl -- what else is new for that beast? He's so tough. The quad is healthy now.
“Personally, I just want what's best for Rob. I said, 'Rob, take your time. Do what you believe in.' He's already the all-time greatest tight end. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. There's never been a tight end like this guy. The sky's the limit for him. If he comes back to play, fantastic. I honestly don't know. I'm waiting to see like everybody else."
So, the Patriots went into the start of free agency not knowing exactly what Gronkowski was going to do. But, based on what Rosenhaus said, there certainly seemed to be optimism he would come back and play. Also, the more time that passed following the Super Bowl without an announcement, the more likely it seemed that he would return.
The start of free agency saw the top tight ends sign with other teams, including Jesse James, Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah. The Patriots were never in the mix because they really didn’t know what was going on with Gronkowski and obviously if he returned they didn’t need another No. 1 tight end.
Then came the weekend before the owners meetings at the very end of March and Bill Belichick appeared to decide he needed a decision. That Thursday, Belichick apparently called Rosenhaus to check in on Gronkowski’s status. Rosenhaus then told Gronkowski he should make a decision soon.
Three days later, that Sunday, the day before the NFL owners meetings, Gronkowski told Rosenhaus he was retiring.
“It’s time,” Gronkowski told Rosenhaus, according to NBC Sports’ Peter King. “I just won another championship. I’m going out on top. I just want to do nothing for a while. I just want to be me. I just want to have fun.”
Gronkowski then called Belichick and Patriots owner Robert Kraft before making the announcement public via Instagram early that Sunday evening.
Meanwhile, at the same time the Patriots were losing out on another top tight end, Jared Cook, as he was deciding between the Saints and Patriots, but because he wanted to be the No. 1 tight end he chose New Orleans not knowing what Gronkowski was going to do.
There’s no issue with Gronkowski taking his time to make a decision as it was a big one and he needed to be 100 percent certain it was the right one. But, by taking as long as he did and ultimately retiring, he prevented the Patriots from doing everything they could to replace him this year.
The organization missed out on all the top free agent tight ends and then while many said they would fill the void via the draft, it was clear the Patriots didn’t think the tight end group was that deep. At the top, T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant are tremendous players, but because they both went so high, the Patriots had no shot at landing either of them, even via trade. The other tight ends just weren't worth being selected when they went.
The best the team could do was sign fringe free agents Seferian-Jenkins and LaCosse, who are decent pieces, but by no names players to build the tight end position around.
Now, the Patriots are left with trying to find contributors just a few short months before training camp, so the market obviously isn’t what it was. It’s been rumored Ben Watson potentially could unretire and join the team, but at age 38 not much can be expected. And then there’s the potential trade market, but with that comes giving up something in return and there aren’t many options going that route that seem super appealing.
The Patriots will find a way to add a contributor or two over the next several weeks, but it certainly won’t be the way they envisioned the position looking.
For all that Gronkowski meant to the Patriots and what a great career he had, it’s becoming clear he didn’t do them any favors with the timing of leaving them.