Tom Brady was a free agent when he joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 18 months ago. Rob Gronkowski was not.
Gronkowski, who had retired one year earlier, remained under contract with the New England Patriots in the spring of 2020. So when he decided to unretire and join Brady in Tampa, he could only do so if the Patriots agreed to trade him there.
They did, shipping him to the Bucs last April. Gronkowski and Brady immediately embarked on another Super Bowl championship run, the former’s fourth and the latter’s seventh.
What did the Patriots get in return? With Brady and Gronkowski set to return to Gillette Stadium for the first time this Sunday night, let’s take a closer look:
The Patriots traded Gronkowski and a 2020 seventh-round pick (No. 241) to the Buccaneers for a 2020 fourth-rounder (No. 139).
Then, during the 2020 NFL Draft, New England packaged pick No. 139 as part of a trade-up, sending that fourth, plus a third-rounder (No. 100) and a fifth-rounder (No. 172) to the Las Vegas Raiders for a higher third (No. 91) and a higher fifth (No. 159).
The Patriots used the 91st pick on a potential Gronk replacement, UCLA tight end Devin Asiasi. At No. 159, they grabbed a kicker they hoped would succeed Stephen Gostkowski, Marshall’s Justin Rohrwasser.
It’s safe to say those selections have not panned out thus far.
Asiasi didn’t catch a pass until the final game of his rookie season, finishing with two on seven targets across nine appearances. Evidently discouraged with his and Dalton Keene’s (selected 101st overall after another trade-up) development, the Patriots proceeded to sign the top two available free agent tight ends the following offseason, giving Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith contracts worth $12.5 million annually.
Asiasi is on the roster this season but has yet to play, sitting out each of the first three games as a healthy scratch.
At least he’s still around, though.
Rohrwasser, who was viewed as a reach at the time as the first kicker drafted, never appeared in a game for the Patriots. He struggled mightily in his first NFL training camp, lost a roster battle to Nick Folk, landed on the practice squad, was released in March and has yet to land with a new team. His NFL career likely is over.
Since there were other picks involved, this shouldn’t be viewed as a straight-up one-for-two trade, Gronkowski for Asiasi and Rohrwasser. And, in our view, getting a fourth-round pick for a player who was never going to play for you again — even one as great as Gronkowski — is a satisfactory return, despite the less-than-stellar payoff.
It has to sting the Patriots, though, to see Gronkowski still performing at such a high level for a different franchise. He wasn’t dominant for most of his first season in Tampa, but of late, he’s more closely resembled the Gronk of old.
Over his last four games, dating back to Super Bowl LV in February, Gronkowski has 22 receptions on 27 targets for 251 yards and six touchdowns. All Patriots tight ends combined have just three touchdowns in the 35 games since Gronkowski left.
Henry and Smith are the first proven commodities New England has added at the position post-Gronk, and though they could and should improve as the season progress and their connections with rookie quarterback Mac Jones strengthen, neither has been an impact player in this opening month.
Henry has been the more productive of the two, catching 10 passes on 13 targets for 109 yards through three games. Smith (16 targets, 10 catches, 74 yards) hasn’t been the YAC machine he was in Tennessee and endured a miserable performance in last week’s loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Both have committed costly penalties, and Smith’s run-blocking grade on Pro Football Focus ranks last among NFL tight ends (Henry is in the bottom half, too). The two also have combined for just two receptions in the red zone, both by Smith. The Patriots will need more from these high-priced pass-catchers as they look to upset the heavily favored Bucs.
As for Gronkowski, it remains to be seen whether he’ll be healthy enough to play in this game. The 32-year-old sat out practice Wednesday and Thursday after taking a shot to the ribs during last week’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams.