Patriots defense on the lookout for Tamme and Stokley

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Patriots defense on the lookout for Tamme and Stokley

FOXBORO - When Bill Belichick was asked this week how similar the current Broncos offense is compared to the one the Patriots handled twice in late 2011, the Patriots head coach proclaimed that it's "95-percent" different.

And how much does it look like the Colts offense Peyton Manning ran for all those seasons in Indy? "Its identical," said Belichick. "It looks the same to me."

In that Indy offense, two players are always vital to Manning's success: his tight end and his slot receiver. And in Denver this season, Manning is using two Colts imports to fill those roles.

Tight end Jacob Tamme is the Broncos' version of Dallas Clark. Brandon Stokley is running the same slot stuff he did when he was with Manning in Indy.

Together, they are a daunting part of the Broncos offense even if players like wideouts Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas are the big-play guys.

"Theyve been very productive and certainly Peyton Manning looks for them in critical situations," Belichick said of Stokley and Tamme. "Stokley gets open a lot in the slot and Tamme does a good job on everything, especially play-action passes going down the seam. I think he has a lot of confidence in both guys on conversions or scramble situations like that where they have to improvise and the play gets extended. Those guys do a good job, they have good chemistry."

So far this year, Tamme and Stokley have accounted for 28 catches and 283 yards. Against Houston two weeks ago, the pair was targeted 17 times and Stokley caught all six balls sent his way.

When the Patriots brought Bobby Carpenter and his superior coverage skills at the linebacker position, it seemed in direct response to the presence of those down-the-middle players like Tamme and Stokley.

While Brandon Spikes is doing work in the running game, he is a minor liability in pass coverage. And with the Patriots' safeties coming off a shaky week, Carpenter could be in a position to stabilize and make some plays that Spikes was inconsistent with.

Belichick said Tamme plays a marginally different role in Denver than Clark.

"Id say the formations and all are the same," Belichick said. "At Indianapolis, Dallas Clark was a lot of times in the slot. With Denver, theyve played a lot more two, three receivers with Brandon Stokley in the slot. So, the tight end plays the tight end, the tight end doesnt play the slot, if you will."

And they both play them pretty well.

When it comes to Gronkowski's restructured deal, 15 is the magic number

When it comes to Gronkowski's restructured deal, 15 is the magic number

Rob Gronkowski's contract looked like one of the NFL's best bargains not too long ago. Now, after agreeing to a contract restructure, he could be paid as the top tight end in the league if he stays healthy.

Granted, it's a gargantuan "if."

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Gronkowski's restructured deal will bump his salary for this upcoming season from $5.25 million to $10.75 million should he hit certain statistical thresholds or be named an All-Pro.

Per Schefter, Gronkowski earns $10.75 million if he plays 90 percent of the offensive snaps (which he's done once before in his career), or makes 80 catches (which he's done twice), or gains 1,200 yards receiving (once), or is named an All-Pro (three times). 

Those seem like lofty goals for the 28-year-old who's entering his eighth year as a pro. But history shows that if he stays on the field for a full season or thereabouts -- 15 games to be specific -- he'll get to where he wants to be. 

If you take out his rookie year, before he had established himself as a go-to option in the Patriots offense, Gronkowski has played in three seasons during which he's reached at least 15 games. In each of those three seasons, he's been named an All-Pro. In 2011, he hit all three statistical markers. In 2014, he hit one. In 2015, he hit none. 

The lesson? When Gronkowski stays relatively healthy throughout a given season, even if he doesn't reach the astronomical statistical heights he reached in his second year, there's a very good chance he's considered the best tight end in the NFL. 

And if that's the case again in 2017, he'll be paid like the best tight end in the NFL.

To hit the second tier of his restructured deal -- which would pay him $8.75 million, per Schefter -- Gronkowski needs to play 80 percent of the offensive snaps (which he's done twice), or make 70 catches (three times), or gain 1,000 receiving yards (three times), or catch 12 touchdowns (twice). 

To hit the third tier of his new deal and get $6.75 million, Gronkowski needs to play 70 percent of the snaps (which he's done four times), or make 60 catches (three times), or gain 800 receiving yards (three times), or score 10 touchdowns (five times). 

According to Spotrac, Jimmy Graham of the Seahawks is currently scheduled to be the tight end position's top earner next season at $10 million. Odds are that if Gronkowski avoids disaster and stays on the field, he'll eclipse that.

But the odds of him staying on the field are what they are: He's played in 15 games in four of seven pro seasons. 

The restructured deal seems to be the ultimate incentive for Gronkowski to get healthy and stay that way following last year's season-ending back surgery. If he can, the Patriots will reap the benefits of having the game's most dynamic offensive weapon on the field, and the player will be paid a far cry from what he was scheduled to make when the week began.