Just days before the 2020 NFL Draft, the Buccaneers made a big splash offensively, trading a fourth-round pick to the Patriots in exchange for tight end Rob Gronkowski and a seventh-round pick, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
The news sent shockwaves throughout the NFL as each of the league’s 32 teams were focused on the upcoming rookie class, and solidifies a reunion between Gronkowski and his former Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady.
While some fans in New England may be feeling disappointed by the return on the trade, given Gronkowski’s ability and his statistical output over the span of his time with the Patriots, there are many moving parts to consider when discussing what happened and what’s next.
As Schefter reported, the Patriots only received a fourth-round pick in return for a three-time Super Bowl champion and future Hall of Famer in Gronkowski. But, Bill Belichick’s team wasn’t in control of the situation like many other general managers would be when a star player asks to be traded.
The man who held all of the cards in this case? Gronkowski himself.
While Gronkowski may have been “retired” last season, he never officially filed any retirement paperwork and sat on the reserve/retired list. So, almost whenever he wanted (before December 1, 2019), he could have applied for reinstatement and been able to jump back onto the field and help the Patriots in their push to give Brady one last ring in New England.
Instead, he sat out the entire season, worked as an analyst covering the NFL on FOX, appeared on The Masked Singer, and participated in WrestleMania 36, even winning WWE’s 24/7 Championship.
While all of this happened, his former quarterback decided to take his talents to “Tompa Bay,” signing a deal with the Buccaneers as a free agent to start the next chapter of his career.
Many speculated about the possibility of Gronk returning to the NFL, but wanting to stay with the only quarterback he’s ever played with: Brady. It all made sense, given Gronkowski’s comments back in 2018 when he was apart of trade talks in a potential deal to the Lions, and threatened retirement if he wouldn’t be able to play with Tom Brady.
Those rumors about a return to the field were fueled on April 20, 2020, when he hinted at a comeback in an interview with Andy Cohen.
“I’m feeling good right now, I’m happy where I’m at,” Gronkowski said. “You just never know, man. You just never know. You never know. I’m not totally done.”
And, apparently, while all of that was happening, work was going on behind the scenes to get Gronkowski out of the red, white and blue in New England, and into the Buccaneers’ brand new uniforms down in Florida for the upcoming season.
Through all of this, those following the Patriots’ current cap space situation knew that the team wouldn’t be able to hold onto Gronkowski if he applied for reinstatement (they would’ve had to shed around $9 million to keep him in New England), and would likely be forced to ship him out of Foxborough the second he decided to come back.
Gronkowski played it all perfectly from his standpoint, coming back at a time where the Patriots were almost guaranteed to have to trade him, and expressing the fact that he wouldn’t be willing to play for any team but the Buccaneers. Thus, the Buccaneers landed their second active NFL 100 All-Time Team member, and shot up in preseason power rankings as a result.
While fans will continue to question the Patriots’ return for years to come, especially if Brady and Gronkowski manage to bring a Super Bowl title to the city that’s hosting the event in 2021, there wasn’t much for Belichick and his team to do.
The Buccaneers knew they didn’t have to send much to New England to get Gronkowski back, given the fact that it was a “TB” situation for the tight end: Tampa or Bust.
So, the Patriots landed a fourth-round pick, and stayed away from any cap troubles as they look to figure out next steps in both the 2020 NFL Draft, and free agency after the fact.
Why didn’t the Patriots trade for Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard, a rumored trade target all offseason, some fans may ask? A few potential reasons come to mind:
- The Buccaneers had valued Howard at a second or third-round pick as far as a return on their end was concerned, and the Patriots already had to give up a seventh-round pick along with Gronkowski to make the deal happened. It’s likely Belichick was hesitant to send along such a high pick, if it was even in the cards, especially given Howard’s lack of production during his 2019 campaign in Tampa Bay.
- The Patriots may be targeting a specific tight end in this year’s draft, and may value that player more than what Howard would bring to the table in Foxborough. If the Patriots don’t land that player, or any tight end in the draft, they may be able to circle back on Howard after the fact and reassess his value with the Buccaneers.
- The Patriots may have moved on completely from Howard after hearing his initial worth from the Buccaneers, and are focusing on new faces for 2020. If they don’t pick a tight end in this year’s draft, they may be okay with settling on a cheaper option in free agency.
All in all, there’s one simple argument when anyone asks about the return: this wasn’t the Patriots’ trade to win.
Belichick got something out of a deal that he was forced into by a player who wouldn’t take the field anywhere else, and sends that same star to a team that he won’t have to play against any time soon. For that alone, he may feel like a winner.
On the flip side, the Buccaneers are able to reunite arguably the greatest quarterback of all time with his favorite target, the arguable greatest tight end of all time, and are in the running for a Super Bowl appearance for the first time in nearly 20 years.