If you read the title correctly, yes I am making the claim that tight end Rob Gronkowski’s retirement should have very little bearing on the Patriots’ draft strategy. The reason behind it is the Patriots were likely already preparing for life without the future Hall of Famer given his high cap number, injury history, and previous talks of retiring.
That day has come to pass, perhaps sooner rather than later. The only offseason move they’ve made at the position is signing Matt LaCosse from the Denver Broncos, although the latter is more of a move tight end than an in-line option like Gronk. The team was also linked to Jared Cook, who is reportedly close to signing with the New Orleans Saints.
The core from the 2010s is aging, so the Patriots are likely to try to build up a new one of players for the next decade. From the leftover core of players drafted in the previous decade and that have three Super Bowl rings from this decade, these are the ages of those respective players: Tom Brady 42, Matthew Slater 34, Julian Edelman 33, Devin McCourty 31, Marcus Cannon 31, Dont’a Hightower 29, and James White 27.
With that in mind, the Patriots have a need to be able to start finding replacements for them while they’re still playing at a high level to keep the talent pipeline moving. A soon to be 30-year-old Gronk was no different in this regard. Whether it’s a receiver or tight end, the Patriots do need to add a blue chip pass catching talent. That need already existed even before his retirement announcement on Sunday.
The team’s most consistent pass catcher is Julian Edelman followed up by James White, who is more of a situational type player in terms of week-to-week snap counts. That’s not a knock on White himself, the Patriots have three playable running backs on the roster when you include Rex Burkhead, a jack-of-all-trades RB who is the perfect #2 back in any situation, and Sony Michel, a potential All-Pro talent at the position.
After those two players, it’s open season on the pass catcher depth chart. Even had Gronk elected to not retire, the urgency to pick up that type of talent in the draft was still there with Edelman, Phillip Dorsett, and Matt LaCosse all scheduled to hit free agency after the 2019 season.
Finding someone who can replace Gronk’s lost production will be difficult, as you don’t replace the greatest tight end to ever put on a uniform with just one player or even his replacements at the position. Gronk was one of those players that transformed an offense and the amount of attention he required opened up opportunities for Edelman and others. I expect the Patriots to shift more towards the offense they finished the season with: 21 personnel and pound the ball down the opponent’s throats with Michel and Burkhead being the primary ball carriers.