The New England Patriots’ already tumultuous offseason took another turn on Tuesday: tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had originally announced his retirement from the NFL last offseason, informed the club that he intended to return to pro football — but that he wanted the team to trade him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers so he could be reunited with his former quarterback, Tom Brady, who himself left New England just last month via free agency.
A short time after Gronkowski’s request was first reported, the deal was done and officially announced by both clubs: the Patriots sent the future Hall of Famer and a seventh-round draft pick (7-241) to Tampa in return for a fourth-round selection (4-139). There are a lot of moving parts and different perspectives involved in this transaction, but all things considered it can be seen as a win for all parties. Why? Let’s find out.
Why the trade is a win for the Patriots
When the week began, New England was tied for second in the NFL with 12 selections in this year’s draft. But while only the Miami Dolphins’ 14 topped the team in this category, the combined value of said picks ranked just 23rd in football: according to Rich Hill’s value chart, the Patriots’ capital was worth only a combined 411.9 points. The Gronkowski trade, however, added a net value of 13.57 points to the equation to give his now-former team a total of 425.47 points — good enough for 22nd in the league.
While adding not even 14 points to the equation and moving up one spot may not look like a lot for a player who will make the Hall of Fame on first ballot one day, it actually is a positive outcome from the Patriots’ perspective considering the circumstances. Gronkowski, after all, was not going to suit up for the team this year: he was on the reserve/retired list after spending all of 2019 out of football, and only decided to return after Tom Brady signed a free agency deal with the Buccaneers last month.
The Patriots could have played hard-ball and simply refused to trade the rights to Gronkowski’s contract under any circumstances, but would not have done themselves any favors in this scenario. As Brian Hines pointed out shortly after the trade was made official, the soon-to-be 31-year-old would have counted $9.25 million against New England’s cap had he simply filed his return papers with the league — a hefty number considering that a) Gronkowski had no intention of playing for the Patriots, and b) the team only has $1.1 million in salary cap space at the moment (according to Miguel Benzan).
New England’s leverage in this situation was effectively non-existent, and entering a contractual dispute with the all-time great would not have led anywhere from the team’s perspective. In turn, and considering his age in combination with his injury history and one year away from the game, the Patriots maximized his value. Look at it this way: the team moved up 102 spots in the draft without having to make any changes to its roster or salary cap.
Why the trade is a win for the Buccaneers
Gronkowski has not played in a football game or participated in a practice since February 2019. He has a lengthy injury history that includes multiple back surgeries, and has not played a full season since 2011. He had a mediocre statistical season compared to his own lofty standards in 2018 (catching a combined 60 passes for 873 yards and three touchdowns in 16 of a possible 19 regular season and playoff games). He will turn 31 next month. And yet, trading for Gronkowski is a win for the Buccaneers.
Not only does the best tight end of his generation add even more star power to an offense that already features Tom Brady as well as wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate, he also brings a championship pedigree to the unit — something Tampa Bay lacks across the board: Brady and Gronkowski are the only players on the offensive side of the ball to have won a Super Bowl before, and two of only four players to do so on the team’s entire current roster.
Gronkowski also offers something that none of the other pass catchers in the Buccaneers’ arsenal can offer at the moment: chemistry with Brady. The two, after all, have spent nine seasons together in New England and appeared alongside each other in a total of 129 games — all while posting some truly outstanding number: Gronkowski has caught a combined 601 regular season and playoff passes from Brady for 9,013 yards and 91 touchdowns.
Given that the offseason has already been impacted by the spreading Coronavirus pandemic, and that preparations for the 2020 season might be shortened in some way as well, adding an experienced player who can serve as a safety-blanket for Brady to the equation is smart business — especially considering that the Buccaneers only had to give up a fourth-round draft pick to get him on board.
Why the trade is a win for Rob Gronkowski
Both of these things are true: Gronkowski wanted to return to football; Gronkowski did not want to return to football as a member of the Patriots. In fact, he only wanted to play with one player in particular: Tom Brady, who now happens to be the quarterback for the Buccaneers. As noted above, the Patriots could have made this situation difficult for all involved, but they opted not to do so — something Gronkowski’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, praised during an appearance on SiriusXM NFL Radio shortly after the trade.
“I give a lot of credit to Bill Belichick,” Rosenhaus said. “Not that the needs it, but give him a lot of credit for working this deal out on their end. Certainly everybody benefitted. I don’t think anyone anticipated Rob playing this year and the Patriots were able to get a fourth round pick essentially when otherwise weren’t counting on Rob to play, so they benefitted. Rob only has a year left on his contract so I think it was a good trade for both sides. Rob’s happy, the Bucs are happy, and certainly, you know, New England picked up a premium pick in a very deep and talented draft.”
Rosenhaus’ statements may be biased towards his client, but he paints an accurate picture in the way that the situation played out perfectly from Gronkowski’s perspective: he was reunited with the only quarterback he wanted to play with, without having to enter a destructive contract dispute with the team that brought him into the NFL in 2010 and made him not just one of the highest-paid but also the most productive players the league has ever seen.