Some in the NFL think the New England Patriots could be more apt to trade four-time All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski than backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Others disagree. It’s going to be an intriguing several months for the Patriots, regardless. That is because New England faces important strategic decisions regarding a long list of prominent contributors to its latest championship effort.
How will the Patriots proceed from here? Conversations with NFL decision-makers illuminate the options, culminating with five predictions.
1. Answer the Garoppolo question
Tom Brady’s exceptional production at age 39 suggests he will remain the Patriots’ starter long enough to force the team’s hand on Garoppolo, whose rookie contract runs through 2017. New England could hold on to Garoppolo for another year just in case, then use the franchise tag to facilitate a trade in 2018. But in using a 2016 third-round choice on quarterback Jacoby Brissett, the Patriots bought insurance for parting with Garoppolo earlier than that.
“If the price is right, I think they’ll be willing to deal,” a personnel director said. “That is why they drafted another quarterback last year. They are smart enough to know this thing will be vastly different without Brady, whenever that day comes. They may like Garoppolo, but no one person is above the team. They will keep looking for quarterbacks if they have to.”
The options are straightforward:
Keep Garoppolo and let him play out his contract. Garoppolo would leave in free agency next offseason, signing a lucrative contract that would put New England in a position to receive a high compensatory selection in 2019.
Keep Garoppolo and plan on him starting in the next couple of seasons. Trading Brady seems out of the question, so his performance would have to decline markedly for New England to go this route.
Trade Garoppolo this offseason. New England could get draft picks to use in 2017 and beyond, allowing them to restock a roster that could subtract several high-profile contributors this offseason.
Trade Garoppolo during or after the 2017 season. This would buy time in case Brady was injured or declined unexpectedly in his age-40 season. It could require using the franchise tag on Garoppolo to facilitate a trade in 2018.
Multiple personnel evaluators said during the season they thought New England’s asking price for Garoppolo should mirror what Philadelphia commanded from Minnesota in the Sam Bradford trade: One first-round pick and a fourth-rounder that could have upgraded to a second if Bradford won the Super Bowl got that deal done. An agent who agreed with that asking price from New England’s perspective thought taking two 2017 second-rounders and a 2018 conditional third from Cleveland would be a rough equivalent if the Browns were interested.
There is no consensus as to how New England will proceed.
“I think they move Garoppolo, because Bill [Belichick] can get value for him now,” one NFL team executive said.
Another exec working for the same team predicted the Patriots would do “nothing” with Garoppolo this offseason.
“I think you keep Garoppolo, because Brady is 39, and even though he is playing at a high level and he wants to play four, five years or however long it is, he is still going to be 40,” a front-office voice from another team said. “I just think they will keep him unless it is such a good offer and Belichick likes some of these other quarterbacks in this year’s draft — unless he feels Brissett is the guy. I just think Garoppolo is better than Brissett. Odds-wise, I put Rob Gronkowski getting trading as just as likely, if not the higher potential than Garoppolo getting traded.”
A veteran agent disagreed.
“They have to trade the QB, right?” this agent asked, explaining that New England should feel good enough about Brissett to justify the move. “They have spent too high of a draft pick [2014 second-rounder] on a guy [Garoppolo] who has rarely played. It makes it worth it if he is traded. I think the chances are much stronger the quarterback is traded than the tight end, who should still be a top weapon for Brady.”
Prediction: The Patriots keep Garoppolo as the heir to Brady and consider using the franchise tag in 2018 as they weigh their options, all while waiting for a trade offer they cannot refuse. Another team exec said he thought a resolution workable to all sides was possible in part because Brady and Garoppolo share the same sports agency, Yee & Dubin Sports, which could promote a cohesive strategy.
2. Determine what to do at tight end
The Patriots must decide whether to re-sign one tight end ( Martellus Bennett) while projecting what Gronkowski might provide in the future. Gronkowski, who turns 28 in May, underwent season-ending back surgery in December, his third back-related operation since 2009. He has reportedly undergone six other surgeries over the same period. Gronkowski, lauded as a hard-working leader in a team statement announcing his placement on injured reserve, is signed through 2019.
From Gronkowski’s arrival in 2010 through the 2015 season, Brady’s statistical performance had fallen off when the dynamic tight end was not on the field. Counting playoffs, Brady had thrown 186 touchdown passes and 43 interceptions with Gronkowski, compared to 42 TDs and 19 picks without him.
The equation changed in 2016 after New England acquired Bennett and a 2016 sixth-round pick from Chicago for a 2016 fourth-rounder. Through the AFC title game, Brady had thrown 14 touchdown passes with just one interception when Bennett was on the field and Gronkowski was off it (Brady threw another three scoring passes with no picks when neither was on the field).
Bennett, 30, has been more durable than Gronkowski, playing in all 16 games in four of the past five seasons (he missed five games in 2015). Gronkowski has zero 16-game seasons over the same span, missing 24 of 80 regular-season contests.
“Bennett will target a three-year, $22 million deal like what Greg Olsen got from Carolina,” one agent predicted.
Bennett signing that type of deal with another team would help New England in the equation for 2018 compensatory draft choices. In that case, the Patriots could seek younger, cheaper insurance for Gronkowski through the draft in May. A team executive put the odds at 60-40 that New England would keep Bennett. He thought the Patriots would hold onto Gronkowski as well.
“It is such a deep tight end draft,” an evaluator said in evaluating the Patriots’ options. “They could trade Gronk and potentially use that pick to draft a tight end or draft one somewhere else in the draft. They could get away with Bennett for an even cheaper price than Gronk. Would I rather have [Alabama tight end] O.J. Howard or would I rather have an older Gronk with injury concerns? That is intriguing.”
Prediction: Bennett leaves in free agency, signing with the highest bidder.
3. Keep Dont’a Hightower
Trading Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins leaves Hightower as the front-seven defender New England apparently wants to re-sign the most.
“Hightower could get the franchise tag and then a long-term deal,” one agent predicted. “It has happened before with [Stephen] Gostkowski, [Logan] Mankins, [Vince] Wilfork.”
The green dot that Hightower wears on his helmet signifies his importance as the quarterback of the defense. While fans best remember the play Malcolm Butler made to beat Seattle in the Super Bowl after the 2014 season, they should not forget the tackle Hightower made on the previous play when he ducked under Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung to take down Marshawn Lynch short of the goal line.
Prediction: The Patriots sign Hightower to an extension this offseason, probably after naming him their franchise player.
4. Set a strategy at cornerback
The Patriots would ideally keep Butler and fellow starting corner Logan Ryan for the long term. Butler will be a restricted free agent. Ryan will be unrestricted.
New England will presumably value Butler at the first-round restricted tender level to dissuade other teams from making offers. As a former undrafted free agent with less than $2 million in career earnings, Butler could have incentive to sign an extension this offseason, which will be his first chance to do so under labor rules.
Could the Patriots sign Butler to an extension in the $8 million to $9 million range, which would be in line with deals for Denver’s Chris Harris Jr. and Oakland’s David Amerson? Butler might prefer to test free agency next offseason and push for money more in line with what the highest-priced corners are earning. Using the franchise tag on Butler next offseason would place his annual salary average into Brady territory. It’s tough to envision New England paying anyone more than a quarterback they consider to be the greatest in league history.
Re-signing Ryan to a deal similar to the ones Casey Hayward and Jeremy Lane got last offseason season could be palatable from a Patriots standpoint. Those deals were in the $5-6 million range annually. Ryan could plausibly ask for closer to $9 million a year, which is what the Falcons paid Robert Alford.
“Both those guys [Butler and Ryan] are very good corners that could start for almost any team,” an evaluator said. “Ryan will be more likely to leave because of the money, and I think they value Butler more. I would argue that Logan Ryan is more versatile because he can play inside or out, but Butler is kind of their lock-down guy.”
Prediction: New England assigns a first-round tender to Butler. The Patriots, having used a 2016 second-round pick for cornerback Cyrus Jones, wave goodbye to Ryan in free agency, figuring they’ll get a decent compensatory pick in return.
5. What about the other free agents?
Defensive linemen Chris Long, Alan Branch and Jabaal Sheard are all scheduled to become free agents. So are running back LeGarrette Blount, safety Duron Harmon, fullback James Develin and receiver Michael Floyd.
“Sheard is the intriguing one,” an evaluator said. “The way they are scheming their linebackers, Sheard has been getting less snaps, even though he is one of their best pure pass-rushers. If you keep Long, maybe you let Sheard go and try to replace him in the draft. Sheard is going to take a pretty good amount of money in free agency.”
Prediction: Blount tests the market before re-signing. Long, having already made his money while suffering through losing seasons with St. Louis, re-signs to stick with a winner, assuming he doesn’t retire. Sheard departs in free agency, signing with Dallas, Seattle or some other 4-3 team looking for pass-rush help.