Gridiron Audibles: Patriots Pick Up Brady, Gronkowski Options

Brady will keep tossing them and Gronk will keep spiking ‘em, for the foreseeable future anyway.

A week after agreeing to a two-year contract extension with quarterback Tom Brady, this past Monday, the team announced that it had picked up the remaining $6 million on a $10 million contract with tight end Rob Gronkowski. The moves likely secure that both men will remain Patriots through 2019.

An irreplaceable piece of the Patriot offense, last season Gronkowski caught 72 passes for 1,176 yards and 11 touchdowns. On a forgettable January afternoon in Denver, Gronk was one of the lone bright spots, fighting through constant double-coverage to snag 8 passes, 144 yards and a touchdown.

Regrettably, one more Gronk catch, and he was wide open in the end zone (see below), would have ensured an extra session of play and a shot at Super Bowl 50.

A wide open Gronkowski eludes Brady's vision on the failed two-point conversion in Denver.
A wide open Gronkowski eludes Brady’s vision on the failed two-point conversion in Denver.

(Gulp) Moving on…

Bye Bye JoJo

Last week, the Patriots announced the release of wide receiver Brandon LaFell. The move was hardly shocking as LaFell produced a rather unremarkable 2015 regular season and was relegated to the fourth wide receiver spot on the depth chart for the post-season.

LaFell was a phenomenal acquisition for the team in 2014, catching 74 passes for 953 yards and seven touchdowns. He came through in huge spots during the Super Bowl run, including the game-winning touchdown versus the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round and the ice breaking score in Super Bowl XLIX versus the Seattle Seahawks.

However last season, LaFell battled through injuries that may have hindered his production. After beginning the season on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list, LaFell struggled to regain his form. His 37 catches for 515 yards and zero touchdowns dwarfed those of the previous season. The team will save 2.675 million in cap space by releasing LaFell.

Patriots Free Agent Plans

With few key free agents to retain, and approximately $15 million in cap space, the Patriots have two possible paths this offseason: Work out long term contracts with players already on the team or actively pursue adding game-changing players to an already loaded roster.

They should be able to do a little of both.

If the Gronk option is any indication of things to come, look for the Patriots to extend linebackers Don’t’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, both are set to become free agents after next season and both will command substantial contracts should they hit the open market. Collins has been a salary cap bargain for the Patriots with his current contract counting a stingy $1.2 million against the cap.

Speaking of undervalued (contract wise) players, king among them is cornerback Malcolm Butler. Breaking onto the scene in 2014, Butler capped it all off by merely clinching a Super Bowl championship.

Last season, Butler was thrust into the starting role and didn’t disappoint. He finished second on the team with two interceptions behind fellow corner Logan Ryan (4). Butler’s cap number for 2016 is set at $600,000, and like Hightower and Collins will be a free agent after next season.

GRIDIRON AUDIBLES by Christian A. Guarino
GRIDIRON AUDIBLES by Christian A. Guarino

Defensive end Chandler Jones completes this dynamic quartet, but is likely to be odd man out when it comes to an extension. Pass rushers are a highly sought after commodity and Jones is likely looking to cash in. He seems the best candidate to hit the open market next spring, if he isn’t dealt away sooner.

Another area to watch during free agency is the offensive line. The unit is undoubtedly in need of revamping, however after watching Super Bowl 50 and the Broncos pass rush decimating the vaunted Panther front, the revamping may not be as elaborate as some would have you believe. The Patriots lost tackle Nate Solder back in October and along with a healthy Sebastian Vollmer, his presence should greatly solidify things in front of Brady. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the Patriots will throw big money along the line during free agency, sorry no Russell Okung. Look for more in the way of depth signings and second tier options with some baggage like the Giants Will Beatty who lost all of last season to injury, or the Saints Jahri Evans who is coming off a down year.

(UPDATE) Forte has signed with the AFC East rival  N.Y. Jets. Terms of the deal haven’t been disclosed. 
Another backfield option may be restricted free agent C.J. Anderson of the Denver Broncos.
The Broncos tendered Anderson with a low, $1.671 million tender. The Patriots, or another NFL team, would need to surpass that salary number and then wait and see if the Broncos match the offer. Anderson, 25, had 152 carries for 720 yards in 2015, while also proving to be a viable receiving option.

Trade Garoppolo?! No Thanks!

A much-discussed scenario making its way around New England and the NFL in general involves a potential trade of backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Garoppolo is signed through the 2017 season, and with Brady locked up until 2019, the odds of Jimmy G seeing legitimate playing time seem slim. However, what if…

1  Brady begins to look human, (shocking concept) joining a long list of Hall of Fame quarterbacks whose skills simply diminished once they approached or surpassed the age of 40.

2  An injury, (think 2008) knocks Brady out for a considerable length of time.

Brady is 39, a fact at times not distinguished by the naked eye, and while just having the highest TD-to-INT ratio (5.1) in NFL history by a quarterback over 38, his age should be seen as a detriment and met with, at minimum, a tempered amount of caution.

All of the above is null and void should Belichick and the Patriots not deem Garoppolo worthy of the starting job. If the Patriots don’t think he’s THE guy, the anointed one to follow Tom Brady, then it makes sense to trade him for assets that could help the team now.

However, that decision would require an answer to the all-important questions of who is next in line and how long do the Patriots plan to wait to begin the grooming process?

“We know what Tom’s age and contract situation are, so we felt as an organization that we needed to address that…I think you’re better being early rather than late at that position.” That was what Belichick said after using a second round pick on Garoppolo in 2014.

Clearly the Patriots believe that preparing a replacement at quarterback is imperative. We’ve seen a late approach to succession plans handcuff local teams before. It’s something that the Celtics failed to do following the fading of the “Big Three” in the early 1990s and again with the reincarnation of a lethal threesome in the late 2000s.

And while backups have come and gone, i.e. Cassel, Hoyer and Mallett, Garoppolo’s two years of learning behind Brady are a great start to the evolution process. It’s probably best not to throw them away.

Proceed with caution.

Christian A. Guarino, a Boston North End resident, writes about football and soccer for the Boston Post Gazette.