PHOENIX – It may not have been altogether surprising that Rob Gronkowski decided to retire from professional football – after all, he gave it serious consideration a year ago at this time – but it was nevertheless a shock to the system for most observers when the All-World tight end made his announcement late Sunday.
As the NFL gathers in the Valley of the Sun for the next few days for the league's annual meeting, the impact of Gronkowski's decision on the reigning Super Bowl Champs is still coming into focus.
What we can say for the moment is that, while 2018 wasn't his most prolific season in terms of statistics, Gronkowski leaves a gaping hole in the Patriots roster and on the New England offense. Replacing what he did over the past decade, both as a pass-catcher and perhaps equally importantly as a run-blocker, will be a tall order indeed for head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
The Patriots now have just three returning tight ends on their roster: Jacob Hollister, Stephen Anderson, and Ryan Izzo. They also recently added a fourth member to the roster, veteran newcomer Matt LaCosse, via free agency.
The oft-injured Hollister (who dealt with hamstring issues all last season) has appeared in 23 games the past two seasons, producing just eight catches for 94 yards. Anderson, mostly a practice squad contributor in 2018, has only slightly more on his résumé, but his 36 career catches for 435 yards came entirely in the 2016 and '17 seasons, when he played for the Houston Texans. Anderson has just one NFL touchdown to his credit, while Hollister is still looking to record his first.
Izzo, meantime, spent his entire rookie campaign on New England's injured reserve list last season. LaCosse has the most experience in the league, having played for the New York Giants (2015-17) and Denver Broncos (2017-18), but in his 22 regular season appearances, he's managed just 27 receptions for 272 yards and one touchdown.
Needless to say, the tight end position – already a thin one for New England – is suddenly the weakest of any on the Patriots' roster. Veteran free agent pickings were slim heading into this year's signing period, which began earlier this month. Any other player the Patriots might sign at this point would be far from a guarantee to make the final roster come September. In truth, none of the current candidates is, either, at this stage.
New England could try to shop around for a willing trade partner to acquire a more-proven veteran than currently exists on the roster. However, Belichick, McDaniels, and personnel boss Nick Caserio may now have to focus their attention on the upcoming NFL Draft, where a number of blue-chip talents are intriguing tight end prospects.
QB Tom Brady now has one less favorite target to rely on to help him generate offense in times of trouble. Whatever the champs end up doing this offseason to mitigate the loss of Gronkowski, it may not be enough to fill the void, at least in the short term. Plus, with wide receiver needing an infusion of talent as well, New England's offense could have an entirely different look and feel as the Patriots attempt to defend their title in 2019.