The two tight ends may go down as among the best at their position in the history of the NFL thanks to their wide range of skills and physical abilities. Getting them was a coup.
Until this week, when suddenly it wasn't.
Hernandez has spent more games injured this season than he's played, dealing with a high ankle sprain. Gronkowski has been on the field, but he's been limited in both opportunities and production as he battles a lingering hip issue, which has had some people pointing to his chronic back problems in college (which some teams used as a reason for not taking him in the draft).
Instead of the Patriots being geniuses for getting two young studs early in their careers, before they had racked up the production and cachet to command huge free agent dollars, New England may be in the unenviable position that many other, less-well-managed teams often face. The Pats may have just sunk a ton of their cap space into big-name, oft-injured, long-term-contract players who won't give them near their return on their money.
Gronkowski signed a six-year, $54 million deal in the offseason. Hernandez will get five years and up to $40 million in his extension. Not all of that $94 million floating around is guaranteed, but the point is valid: Did the Patriots, by being decent and locking up solid, young players early, actually make a huge mistake?
Some people will think so, but a major caveat must be mentioned. Hernandez has been out for just a few weeks, and Gronkowski is still playing through his ailment (and racking up the numbers — 260 yards on 19 catches for three touchdowns is just fine through four games, especially considering the Patriots want to be spreading the ball around).
These guys aren't fading. They're not pulling a Brian Westbrook on the Patriots by landing on the injury report every week. Their injuries are legitimate football concerns that come from playing hard and the general misfortune of a tough, tough game. (Both Gronkowski's and Hernandez's serious ankle injuries — Hernandez this year, and Gronkowski last year, which he played through during the Super Bowl — came from on-field situations that could happen to any player at any time.)
Furthermore, while Gronkowski and Hernandez both have "extracurricular activities" that could make their contracts a concern, such as Gronkowski's life-of-the-party offseason and Hernandez's checkered background, neither have done a thing to compromise the team or their ability to perform. If these guys are getting hurt giving it all to the team, then they deserve the contracts completely. They haven't done anything to make the deals look like a bad move outside of just doing their jobs.
The question that remains is whether the deals were a good choice for the Patriots.
Yes, it can be precarious to offer that much money to players who still have time left on their original contracts, but given the potential of both players, and their value to the New England setup, the Patriots were smart to lock them up. Even more, the Patriots showed a great commitment to finding a deal that was good not only for the team but also for the players involved, an area where the team's PR image has needed some help before.
The players fighting through injuries does not make the deals any less worthy. If anything, New England should tone down how much it sends its capable tight ends into the thick of battle every week (as the Pats have in recent weeks with Gronkowski). Tight end is one of the most bruising spots on a roster, with the players expected not only to catch and run with finesse but also to block like linemen. The Patriots paid premium dollars for that ability, and they will most likely get a decent return on their investment, if not the eye-popping numbers Hernandez and Gronkowski can put up when they are completely healthy.
New England may one day question sinking so much money into the two tight ends, but it's a wager any team would have — and should have — taken. A few injuries early this year, which just happens to be the season after the contracts were signed, shouldn't scare too many people off.
And judging from what Gronkowski and Hernandez have shown so far, a little limitation now may do one better later — these guys don't like being held back for long.
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