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Patriots Face Big Personnel Decisions in Offseason

Posted by Javier Morales on 2/7/2017 8:23:56 AM

The rumor mill is already starting after New England's thrilling 34-28 overtime victory over Atlanta in Sunday's Super Bowl.

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. It's going to be an intriguing several months for the Patriots about their personnel.

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The Patriots face important strategic decisions regarding their personnel. Where will they go from here? This article delves into what New England's brass must do before fall camp begins in five to six months.

What happens with Garoppolo?

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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.

The options include keeping Garoppolo and letting him play out his contract. He 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.

The Patriots will likely 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.

Determine what to do at tight end

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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. 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.

In the end, Gronk will likely stay and Bennett will leave in free agency, signing with the highest bidder.

Keep Dont'a Hightower?

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Trading Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins leaves Hightower as the front-seven defender New England apparently wants to re-sign the most. 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.

The Patriots will likely sign Hightower to an extension this offseason, probably after naming him their franchise player.

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