Ridley ready to carry the load

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Ridley ready to carry the load

FOXBORO - "Nobody wants to see the ball on the ground less than me," said Stevan Ridley on Sunday afternoon.

The second-year back was referring, of course, to the tail end of 2011 when - at the end of a promising rookie season - he dropped the football twice. One went out of bounds. One was recovered by the defense. They came in the final regular-season game at Buffalo and in the AFC Divisional Playoff game against Denver.

And the region gasped like he'd mooned the Queen.

It was a surprise that the historically surehanded Ridley put the ball on the ground. It will be a bigger surprise if it becomes a habit.

The kid is diligent as his early returns in camp have shown. Ridley's easily outclassed his draft peer from 2011, Shane Vereen through four public workouts. His blitz pickup form leaves something to be desired, but his decisiveness making cuts, ability to run in traffic then bounce out and accelerate and run with power have all been impressive.

"I'm not even close (to where I need to be)," said Ridley, who came to the Patriots from LSU. "I still have work to do."

With BenJarvus Green-Ellis gone, Joseph Addai released and Vereen starting slowly, the image of Ridley as the lead back is becoming easier to imagine.

Ridley admitted it's occurred to him as well.

"I think that's every little kid's dream," he said when asked if he hoped to be the starting back this year. "It's a joint and a team effort. We have a group of running backs that can all play that all do great things differently, who all do them well. I'm just in there trying to pull my load."

Ridley's running skills have put him in a good position so far. His ability as a receiver is more of an untapped resource. But with the Patriots working a lot of screen passes into their practice time this week, we're seeing Ridley's strength in that regard.

He's a naturally smooth catcher who gets his head around quick and gets downfield without a lot of dancing. And that's important with screens.

To see three big linemen in front of you trying to get downfield on some DBs, it's a chance to make a big play so for me, it's a present almost when you have lead blockers going downfield like that," Ridley explained. "I look forward to it when it does open up. If we get it down and get it like the coaches want us to run it, I think we'll run that play a good bit."

The screen is a counter punch to an overaggressive pass rush, something plenty of defenses are forced to employ since Tom Brady with time to survey means death. To slow down the pass rush, being able to flip a pass over the top of onrushing linemen and in front of dropping DBs, is a sensible play.

Receiving was not a strong suit of Green-Ellis. And Danny Woodhead is a difficult target to locate with his size. Ridley needs to be able to carry it off.

Slater missing from start of Patriots practice

Slater missing from start of Patriots practice

FOXBORO -- The Patriots were without two key members of their special teams units at Friday's practice. 

Both Matthew Slater (foot) and Jordan Richards (knee) were not spotted at the start of the team's most recent workout. Defensive lineman Woodrow Hamilton (illness) was also missing. 

Hamilton and Richards did not participate in Thursday's practice. Slater was present on Wednesday and Thursday after missing Sunday's game against the Jets. 

The Patriots did have a Gronkowski back on the field Friday, but it wasn't Rob, who was expected to undergo back surgery in Los Angeles. It was fullback Glenn Gronkowski, who has apparently been re-signed to the Patriots practice squad for his fourth go-round on New England's 10-man unit. Practice-squad tight end Kennard Backman, who has not been at Patriots practice since Wednesday, has likely been released in order to make room for Gronkowski. 

 

Curran: Patriots holding all the cards with Gronkowski contract

Curran: Patriots holding all the cards with Gronkowski contract

FOXBORO – If the Patriots ever do file for divorce from Rob Gronkowski, it’s not going to be because they don’t like what they are paying him.

When the team picked up the $10 million option on Gronk’s contract in March, activating the back half of his six-year, $54M contract, the Patriots got the upper hand business-wise.

Gronk is signed through the 2019 season – same as Tom Brady. His salaries from 2017 to 2019 are $4.25M, $8M and $9M. His cap hits are $7M, $11M and $12M.

The salary cap for 2016 is $153M. Between now and 2019, it could balloon to more than $170M. 

Gronk fits neatly under it. The franchise tag for tight ends in 2016 was $9M. Gronk is on the books to play for less than half of that in salary in 2017.

That explains why Gronk sent that tweet back in March,  passive aggressively kicking rocks about the “pay cut” he took when the Patriots picked up his option. And it’s why, throughout the summer, his agent Drew Rosenhaus was trying to get the Patriots to the table to work out a new deal for his client.

This back injury couldn’t have come at a worse time for Gronkowski business-wise.

Even if the Patriots tore up the final three years of the deal and gave him a new contract without knowing how he’ll come out of this latest back surgery, the new deal would have to be performance-based and loaded with playing-time clauses.

In that case, as opposed to self-preservation to ensure he can walk fairly well at 50, Gronk, now 27, may feel compelled to play even when he’s not “right.” And, if he’s playing while less than 100 percent, will he be able to play with the abandon that made him the transcendent player he’s been?

That’s if Gronkowski and his Gronktourage would even agree to that kind of a contract, which I’m not sure they would.

They will want security. They may also feel they are owed security because of the physical sacrifices Gronk has made in his seven-year career. And that’s not even taking into consideration the windfall the franchise has realized both financially and in public perception because an inimitable player has been on their roster for seven years. The team should expect a request that they relax their generally hard-line bargaining

While the Patriots have had a strong relationship with Gronk’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, this contract is – on face value – embarrassing for Rosenhaus at this point.

That Gronk “won” for the first portion of the contract isn’t going to be recalled. But he did win. Gronk signed the deal on June 8, 2012. Within months, he fractured his arm on a PAT attempt against the Colts. Then – after having a plate inserted – he broke it again in the playoffs right where the plate ended. An infection ensued. Gronk also had back surgery that offseason. He very slowly returned to action in 2013, missing the first six games. He returned for Week 7, caught 39 balls for 592 yards over the next seven games, then had his season ended by an ACL blowout.

At that juncture, the security of the contract was a godsend. But the way those two years went – the rushing back to the field, the plate insertion, the infection – has shaped the entire relationship with the team since.  

And considering Gronk’s father, Gordie, was a successful businessman himself and sent four sons to the NFL, there may be no more well-informed family out there as to the harsh realities of the business of football.

Beyond just knowing how the sausage gets made, though, the Gronkowskis have been considering Rob’s football mortality and making sure to maximize his earnings since he was 19.

Not hypothetically either. After Gronk’s sophomore season, he declared for the draft despite having ruptured a disk for the first time. The reason? If he played another down of college football his $4M insurance policy was void. If he suffered a career-ending injury, he would realize no dough from the sport. So he entered the draft to start making as much as he could before the body gave out. 

Which is to their credit. The kid had a skill, he loved playing the sport, making sure he’s well-compensated for plying that skill for as long as possible is what any parent should do.

But we’re approaching a crossroads now. Will Gronk want to continue playing? Will his family encourage him to? Will he even be cleared?

And even if those answers all came back in the affirmative, would the Gronkowskis sign off on Rob playing for relative peanuts compared to what lesser tight ends are receiving?

The Patriots have the favorable hand right now. The young man may well be on an operating table still, so this would not be the time to play it.

But the hard realities of that contract are impossible to ignore. And at some point, they’ll come to a head.