Patriots To-Do List: First priority is to get their Gronk right

Patriots To-Do List: First priority is to get their Gronk right

With the glow of Super Bowl LI finally beginning to fade -- a little -- it's time to start looking ahead to 2017. Over the next few days, we'll look at the Patriots' to-do list: Things they need to care of as the offseason begins. We start today with Rob Gronkowski, and the need for him to becone more durable.

Conventional wisdom for the past few years has held that, without a full-go Gronk, the Patriots wouldn’t win a Super Bowl. 

The 2011, 2012, 2013 and -- especially -- the 2014 seasons were seen as proof of that maxim. 

PATRIOTS TO-DO LIST:

Well, they just won a Super Bowl without him. But the team’s relationship with Gronk going forward shouldn’t be impacted by the fact they reeled off 31 unanswered points and won, any more than if Atlanta’s Robert Alford had sealed a Falcons win by intercepting Tom Brady on the deflected pass Julian Edelman hauled in. 

Gronk stands apart. But his availability and health will impact the team’s decisions. Speaking to those close to the tight end, I got indications the surgery was a full-on success and not terribly invasive. As I reported in early January, he’ll be ready to go for offseason workouts. The question is how committed he’s going to be to embracing a different way of training. A tight end needs some meat on his bones and muscle mass to do his job effectively, especially in the running game. But, at 27, Gronk is a rocked-up, beefcake poster trending towards lumbering. He’s spent his athletic life training for strength. His training camp and early season were ruined by a hamstring pull. 

If he wants to avoid those soft-tissue injuries and add years to his career and give himself a shot at walking without a limp in his 40s, he has to commit to the pliability, resistance band, hydration, rest and diet training that Alex Guerrero espouses. It doesn’t just work for Tom Brady. It’s what helped Julian Edelman go from being an oft-injured wideout to one who survives some of the most punishing hits of any wideout in the league. It’s what helped Willie McGinest go from tearing a muscle a week to being able to play most effectively at the end of his career. 

Brady, speaking this week to MMQB poobah Peter King, was speaking generally about health but his words apply very easily to Gronk. 

“If you’re a receiver, and you have a great game, say you have eight catches,” Brady explained. “And you play eight games a season and you're hurt the other eight. Eight catches times eight games is 64. That's a below-average season for any receiver. If you play 16 games with an average of eight catches you're an All-Pro.

"The difference is durability. How do you work on durability? That’s what I’ve figured out. I know how to be durable. It’s hard for me to get hurt, knock on wood. Anything can happen in football. But I want to put myself in a position to be able to withstand the car crash before I get in the car crash. I don't want to go in there and say, ‘Oh, God, I know this muscle is really tight and ready to go, let’s see if it can hold up to someone falling on me who is 300 pounds.’ Then someone lands on you, and a rotator cuff tears. I could have told you that was probably going to happen. It’s going to be really hard for me to have a muscle injury, based off the health of my muscle tissue and the way that I try to take care of it. Your muscle and your body allow you to play this great sport.”
 
The disposition of Gronk affects other decisions. Martellus Bennett’s made it clear that the warm fuzzies of playing for the Patriots haven’t dulled his desire to get maximum return in free agency.  Michael Floyd says he wants to be back and Gronk ripples may extend to those conversations. And there are draft considerations to take into account as well. 

And then there’s the money aspect. Gronk’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, was trying to get Gronk’s deal redone last summer. He’s signed through 2019 and the salaries are below-market for a tight end of Gronk’s ability but they are very reasonable given the questions of availability.  For Gronk to get a bump, he needs to show his durability issues are being addressed. And even then, the Patriots may need to see it for a full season, not just a few months in the summer. How will this fly with Team Gronk? Probably not well. But it is, as they say, what it is. 
 

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

David Harris is expected to be a savvy middle linebacker who will line up his teammates when they help. He's expected to provide some level of leadership, even in his first year in New England, as an accomplished-but-hungry 33-year-old who has not yet reached a Super Bowl. 

What Harris is not expected to do is improve the Patriots pass rush. He was in on one sack in 900 snaps last season.  

But in a roundabout way he might. 

MORE: How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

There are dominos to fall now that Harris has been added to Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense. How much will Harris play, and whose playing time will he cut into? Those questions don't yet have answers, but one of the more intriguing elements of the Harris acquisition is how he will benefit Dont'a Hightower's game.

If Harris can pick up the Patriots defense quickly -- and all indications are that there should be few issues there -- he could take some of the all-important communication responsibilities off of Hightower's shoulders. 

Ever since taking the reins from Jerod Mayo as the team's signal-caller, Hightower has had to be on top of all requisite pre-snap checks and last-second alignment changes. It's a critical role, and one that Hightower performs well, but those duties place some added stress on the player wearing the green dot. Perhaps if part of that load can be heaped onto Harris' plate, that might allow Hightower to feel as though he's been freed up to focus on his individual assignments.

Harris' presence might also impact where on the field Hightower is used. Hightower may be the most versatile piece on a Patriots defense loaded with them, but with Harris in the middle, Hightower could end up playing more on the edge, where he's proven he can make a major impact (see: Super Bowl LI).

For Belichick and his staff, having the ability to use one of their best pass-rushers -- and one of the most efficient rushers league-wide, per Pro Football Focus -- on the edge more frequently has to be an enticing byproduct of the move to sign Harris. Especially since there are some question marks among the team's end-of-the-line defenders behind Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich. 

We'll have to wait for training camp before we have an idea of how exactly Harris fits in with the Patriots defense. But the effect he'll have on his new teammates, and Hightower in particular, will be fascinating to track. 

How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

Ever since Derek Carr signed a five-year, $125 million extension with the Raiders to give him the highest average annual contract value in league history, some version of the same question has been posed over and over again. 

What does this mean for other quarterbacks looking for new deals? 

Despite the fact that Carr's average annual value surpasses the previous high set by Andrew Luck ($24.6 million), and despite the fact that Carr's contract provides him the security that alluded him while he was on his rookie contract, his recent haul may not mean much for the likes of Matthew Stafford, Kirk Cousins and other top-end quarterbacks.

They were already expecting monster paydays down the road that would hit (or eclipse) the $25 million range, and Carr's record-setting contract may not even serve as a suitable baseline for them, as ESPN's Dan Graziano lays out.

So if Carr's contract did little more for upper-echelon quarterbacks than confirm for them where the market was already headed, then does it mean anything for someone like Jimmy Garoppolo? 

Carr and Garoppolo were both second-round picks in 2014, but from that point, they've obviously taken very different roads as pros. Carr started 47 consecutive games in his first three years and by last season he had established himself as one of the most valuable players in the league. Garoppolo, by comparison, has started two games. 

Both players still hold loads of promise, but unless Garoppolo sees substantial playing time in 2017 and then hits the open market, he won't approach Carr's deal when his rookie contract is up.  

ESPN's Mike Reiss projected that a fair deal for Garoppolo on the open market might fall between the $19 million that was guaranteed to Chicago's Mike Glennon and Carr's contract, which includes $40 million fully guaranteed and $70 million in total guarantees, per NFL Media.

Perhaps something in the range of what Brock Osweiler received from the Texans after Osweiler started seven games for the Broncos in 2015 would be considered fair: four years, with $37 million guaranteed. Because Osweiler (before his deal or since) never seemed as polished as Garoppolo was in his two games as a starter in 2016, and because the salary cap continues to soar, the argument could be made that Garoppolo deserves something even richer. 

Though Garoppolo is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency following the 2017 season, there is a chance he doesn't get there quite that quickly. The Patriots could try to come to some kind of agreement with their backup quarterback on an extension that would keep him in New England, or they could place the franchise tag on him following the season. 

Either way, Garoppolo will get paid. But until he sees more time on the field, a deal that would pay him in the same range as his draft classmate will probably be out of reach.