Patriots Mailbag: Rob Gronkowski Could Reach Antonio Gates’ Level With Better Understanding of the Game


May 27, 2011

Patriots Mailbag: Rob Gronkowski Could Reach Antonio Gates' Level With Better Understanding of the Game Sports fans all have something in common. They miss football, and they want it back.

If you're curious about that issue — and, really, why wouldn't you be? — it's time to dive through this week's mailbag. Along the way, you'll also find questions about the Patriots' secondary, backup quarterbacks and a soon-to-be perennial Pro Bowler at tight end.

Thanks for all of your questions, and if yours wasn't answered, come on back next week.

If the lockout uses up the summer, then an agreement is reached, how will the league allow teams to prepare? Would they cancel games to have an abbreviated minicamp and preseason, extend the regular season, or just start playing?

Someone just asked Roger Goodell about a fair length of free agency, and he said he wasn't sure, which shows there might not be an actual timetable of events for when this debacle finally gets resolved. Now, Goodell could be bluffing because he doesn't want the players to think they can hold out on negotiations (assuming they lose in court) until a specific time before giving into the owners' demands on a CBA. Or, there could simply be about 10 timetables in place for a course of action, and they could all hinge on the start of the league year. (For example, there would be a major difference in urgency in the first week of August compared to the third week of August.)

If the players lose in court, the two sides would need to agree to a new CBA by the second week of July to have a meaningful free agency period before a full training camp. They'd need to reach a new CBA by the third week of July to get everyone on the current roster in for a full camp. And I don't think you'll need to worry about losing games until the second week of August. Because the games are the money makers, I think the NFL would settle on a condensed month of free agency, training camp and preseason to get everyone ready for the regular season.

Let's take it one step further. The appeals hearing is June 3, and a ruling would be expected in two or three weeks. Let's assume the latter and say the ruling comes June 24. That would give the two sides six full weeks to negotiate before they reach the second week of August. I'm not optimistic they can reach a CBA based on the tenor of their most recent negotiations, but it's time to be blunt: If they can't reach a CBA in six weeks — knowing full well that there are games on the line — it would be a disastrous error for all involved.

With the glut of cornerbacks on the roster, do you foresee any of them making the switch to safety, or fielding more three- and four-cornerback sets? The Jets were very effective at shutting down Tom Brady with their defensive backs, allowing their front six and seven to contain the run and rush the passer. Is Bill Belichick trying to follow suit by building a shutdown defensive backfield to give his line more time to contain the backs and get to the quarterback?

Belichick's cornerbacks were more on the veteran side in the early and middle portion of the decade, but they have gotten somewhat younger in recent seasons. Other than that, his philosophy with the position hasn't particularly changed, and it doesn't have anything to do with the Jets, whose defensive game plan rattled Brady with pressure more than coverage. Really, all they did was draft Ras-I Dowling in the second round because Malcolm Williams is a special teamer, so I wouldn't look too much into that.

The Patriots do have a nice young group of cornerbacks. Veteran Leigh Bodden and Devin McCourty will project as the starters with Dowling, Kyle Arrington, Darius Butler and Jonathan Wilhite competing for time as backups. And while Dowling and Arrington have the size to play safety, I don't foresee a position change in their future. The Dowling pick was based on talent and insurance in case Bodden hasn't fully recovered from his shoulder injury.

Also, remember the Patriots have a good group of safeties, so there isn't really a need to make a change. Brandon Meriweather, Patrick Chung and James Sanders were all good in 2010, and assuming Jarrad Page returns, he showed some good signs when he was healthy last season.

When will the lockout be over?

I'm taking three weeks off from the end of June to the middle of July, so it's bound to happen around then. And in all seriousness, everyone I've spoken to in the last month believes the owners will win the appeal to keep the lockout in place, and the two sides will then begin negotiating around the Fourth of July. So, yeah, during my vacation.

How did the mediation talks go in Minnesota, and how much of an influence is Brady in the negotiations?

Judge David Doty has presided over the majority of the NFL's cases in the Minnesota court system, but Judge Susan Nelson was randomly handed the injunction case this time around. Therefore, Nelson had the authority to order court-mandated mediation, which stayed in the Minnesota court system.

As for Tom Brady, he's had his name on the lawsuit, and that is very important as far as symbolism is concerned. Other than that, Brady has had close to zero impact with the negotiations or the legal process. Players really respect Brady's willingness to put his name on the line with this historic event, but there's nothing he can really bring to the negotiations. That's not really his forte.

This is not much of a question, but I am really enjoying watching Rob Gronkowski. He comes out of Arizona, and I watched his college games. I knew this kid was going to be great pickup for Pats, really think he will be one of the best at tight end when his career is over. As good as he was last year, there is still improvement and upside to this kid. He is powerful, rangy with soft hands and has a good understanding of the game as well. He reminds me of Mark Bavaro but definitely believe he will be better and one of the greatest if he stays healthy.

Belichick really sang Bavaro's praises at one point last season, so he would obviously love to see Rob Gronkowski reach that level. Bavaro was an elite blocker, and Gronkowski could probably reach that level if he needed to get to that point, but he is too valuable of a receiver to solely concentrate on the blocking aspect.

For this, I believe Gronkowski will rack up the statistical production to be a perennial Pro Bowler throughout his career. His 6-foot-6, 265-pound frame (bigger than Bavaro's), athleticism and receiving ability make him a matchup nightmare for linebackers and defensive backs alike. Once Gronkowski understands the intricacies of reading and beating defenses, he could be unstoppable on an Antonio Gates level, especially with Brady throwing him the ball.

Who will be a better quarterback down the road: Brian Hoyer or Ryan Mallett?

That's a good question, and I can't give you a perfectly defined answer. First, I'd have to believe Brian Hoyer will be Brady's primary backup in 2011, meaning Ryan Mallett would be the third-stringer. From there, it's based on Mallett's desire to be a great pro. He's got more talent than Hoyer, and that talent would have made Mallett a top-five draft pick if he didn't have off-field character concerns.

It's very difficult to project how players will mature as human beings, and that's the X factor with this question. If Mallett proves those character concerns were without merit, he'll be a tremendous pro quarterback. So, with all of that said, Mallett has the most upside, but there are many who believe he could quickly be out of the league. I believe Hoyer, on the other hand, will get an opportunity to start at some point in his career.

Do you see the lawsuit filed by the coaches playing a factor in the negotiations or an end to the lockout?

It definitely won't play a role in the negotiations. The purpose of the NFLCA brief was to back the players for the appeal hearing and to show the Eighth Circuit the coaches would suffer irreparable harm with a continued lockout. They actually make a really good case, and I think they made their point (more details here with the brief).

Now, will it have an impact on the court's ruling? I fear that it won't because many believe the Eighth Circuit has already made up its mind. There is no doubt that the players and coaches are suffering irreparable harm during the lockout, but the Eighth Circuit's stance is that the court system should not be able to block a lockout. Therefore, it's almost as if they're arguing separate things. And if that's the case, the coaches' brief will not make a factorable impact.

Do you think there is any chance the NFL won't play at all next season?

Well, there's a chance, but I'd say it's extremely unlikely. I still think there is a very legitimate chance they'll lose some games, but I'd still bet against it. Bottom line is, the players want to play, and the owners want their money. Someone will break along the way.

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