Rob Gronkowski is still pondering whether or not he'll be back for 2019. One of the biggest determining factors: Is anybody going to share the tight-end load with him?
The Patriots are soon cutting ties with Dwayne Allen, which means the only tight ends on the roster are Gronk and Jacob Hollister. That will change in the course of the offseason, but will it change enough to convince Gronk that he's not going to be ridden into the ground in 2019?
This past year, Gronk played 838 regular-season snaps and another 246 in the postseason, including 97 against the Chiefs. That's 1,084 all told. In 2017, he played 1,079 between the regular season and playoffs
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Every NFL player takes a beating on game days but Gronk's thrashing is unique in that his job requires him to block like a tackle, run routes like a wideout and take body shots unlike anybody else.
And with the lack of tight-end depth in New England -- Allen and Jacob Hollister were the only other tight ends who saw the field for the Patriots this season -- the pressure was on Gronk every week to get up and do it again.
The cycle of punishment wore on him, and he acknowledged that at the Super Bowl.
"The season's a grind," he said in Atlanta. "It's up and down . . . You can take some serious hits . . . Try and imagine getting hit all the time and trying to be where you want to be every day in life. It's tough, it's difficult. To take hits to the thigh, take hits to your head. Abusing your body isn't what your brain wants. When your body is abused, it can bring down your mood. You've got to be able to deal with that, too, throughout the season. You gotta be able to deal with that in the games.
"I just took 50 collisions, and then like the next day everyone wants you to be up," he continued. "They want practice full speed, next week they want the game to be full speed, but they don't understand sometimes what players are going through with their bodies, with their minds."
It would be one thing if Gronk was ecstatic with his contract situation and taking the beating. He's not. And hasn't been. Last season, his base was $8 million and he didn't hit any of the incentives the team dangled in front of him. This year, the base is $9 million.
Gronk remains at the top of the tight-end food chain when it comes to salary. But it's an ongoing agitation for him that his impact, workload and the physical punishment he takes far exceeds that of many of the game's more highly-paid wide receivers. Nineteen wide receivers will have a base salary in 2019 that's higher than Gronk's $9 million.
The Patriots would love to know sooner rather than later whether Gronk is coming back.
But his decision is going to be, in part, contingent on the workload they expect him to shoulder for his $9 million. Until he knows what the team's going to do in free agency and/or the draft, he may not be in a hurry to make a call.
Which, of course, has the potential to gum up the team's free agency plans since Gronk takes up a decent chunk of cap space.
It's not a crisis. And it's not something the team hasn't dealt with before. But it needs resolution and that's going to be hard to find.
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