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Bedard: Patriots must find a way to lessen Rob Gronkowski’s workload

(Adam Richins for BSJ)

FOXBOROUGH — There were two newsworthy quotes uttered by members of the Patriots (no, we’re not kidding) after Sunday’s 21-13 victory over the Chargers.

The first was from Bill Belichick (again, not joking) when he answered my question about the red-zone offense by admitting that there are two problems with the team that are irking him.

“We’re giving up too many big plays on defense and can’t convert on third down in the read area,” Belichick said. “Those are two huge issues.”

So, now we know what the Patriots will be working on during the bye week.

The other will be glossed over because of who delivered it. And that the actual contents of the quote can be explained away a number of ways. But it shouldn’t. It was a warning, if not a call for help.

“I’ve just got to go out there and just be on top of my game the whole time,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said when he was asked what he thought he didn't do well on Sunday. “Some plays here and there I do good. And others, I feel like I just don’t have it for that one. I’ve just to play all four quarters, every play, to the max.”

There are two ways to take Gronkowski’s startlingly honest admission. One would be to blame him for not giving consistent down-to-down effort. It's an understandable position, considering he's a highly paid professional athlete, and mental toughness is something the Patriots expect of their players.

I’m going to go the other way.

It’s interesting Gronkowski was so self-reflective in the postgame press conference, because at one point during the game, when he didn’t corral a few catchable balls, I thought, “Gronk looks like he’s worn out. He’s not Gronk right now.” Gronkowski also appeared fatigued — more than the usual post-game tiredness — in that press conference.

The truth is that this has been going on for a few games. Gronkowski certainly has his moments where he shows that he’s the best tight end in the game, especially in the passing game. Even Gronk at 75 percent is better than any other tight end in the NFL.

But there have been subtle signs that he’s having some issues. His blocking work has been adequate — even very good for a play here or there — but more often than not, his blocking has been subpar for him, especially when it comes to sustaining blocks in the run game.

I don’t think this about Gronkowski’s compete level or his interest in doing the dirty work associated with the position. I think the Patriots have asked too much of him, and they better find a way to get him some help before the trade deadline or he might not last the season.

Untenable workload

When Julian Edelman was healthy, defenses had to pick their poison when it came time to decide who got the most attention. And Josh McDaniels was able to work the two of them off each other beautifully, often putting a singular defender in a position where he had to decide which player to defend.

Without Edelman -- and with no other preferred target by Brady to worry about -- defenses are focusing all their attention on Gronkowski. The running backs are doing what they can to augment the work of Gronkowski in the passing game, but more and more, opposing defenses are all over him on the line and, especially, as he goes down the field. I don’t think I can ever recall a season when Gronkowski has had to grind so hard for his receptions.

And it’s not just on his pass routes. Because of the many struggles by both Patriots offensive tackles this season, the Patriots have asked even more of Gronkowski when it comes to his blocking.

Then, when you add in the fact that Gronkowski is the only viable pass catcher at the tight end position, since Dwayne Allen has been persona non-grata when it comes to Brady’s sphere of trust, and Jacob Hollister is a neophyte at the position, and you basically have an enormous weight being hoisted upon Gronkowski’s humungous shoulders.

One guy on the field Sunday understood it: Chargers former All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates.

“I think I understand the magnitude in terms of how hard it is to perform day in and day out with guys coming in to stop you and defenses are trying to game plan,” Gates said when asked about the level of respect he has for Gronkowski. “That is the respect I have for the consistency he has when he is healthy. He is able to help them win and able to put them in a better position to win football games.”

But at some point, the burden placed on Gronkowski becomes untenable. Thanks to his words on Sunday, I think it’s safe to say we’ve reached that point this season.

Enough is enough. The Patriots have to get Gronkowski some help before they lose him again. Already without Edelman and Dont’a Hightower, a Gronkowski injury would be a death knell for a team that had the highest of aspirations before the start of the season.

One option: Try again with Dwayne Allen

Maybe the solution, although I doubt it, is simply mandating that Brady get on the same page with Allen. I don’t know what they have to do in order to make that happen, but that’s a good place to start.

The Patriots do not have the luxury, as they have in the past with receivers, for Brady simply to ignore Allen on pass routes. He was open a few times against the Chargers and in recent games, and Brady has to make Allen a viable player if the Patriots stand pat at the position. All it takes is one play for Allen to regain his form, and the Patriots should make it part of Brady’s job description going forward to get Allen in the mix.

Again, that’s if the Patriots don’t acquire another tight end.

And that’s the other option.

Jimmy Graham is available

There is one bright and shiny name reportedly available at the position, and it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility that the Patriots could make a move on him: Jimmy Graham. Sure, he can’t block a lick and doesn’t exactly play with the kind of intestinal fortitude usually preferred by the Patriots. But if you wanted one move to take the load off of Gronkowski, solve the team’s red-zone woes (one of the team’s “huge issues” according to Belichick), give the Patriots an alternative should Gronk go down (they don't have anywhere close to one right now) and aid the defense at the same time by upping the point output, then Graham could conceivably solve all of them.

The Patriots have never been shy about making a blockbuster deadline deal -- especially when you consider their late pickups of Aqib Talib (in 2012) and Jamie Collins (in 2016). And Seattle is reportedly looking to move the tight end. Can you imagine defenses trying to game-plan for Gronkowski and Graham in the red zone, let alone with other targets like James White, Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks?

Don’t come to me with Eric Ebron of the Lions. He’s terrible and wouldn’t solve anything because the chances are long he could even get the playbook. Vernon Davis of the Redskins appears to be the only other viable option (it's not the Packers' M.O. to trade in-season, so a Martellus Bennett return doesn't seem in the cards), if Washington wanted to dump him and the Patriots were OK with two more years left on his contract.

Salary-cap issues

The problem in trading for Graham is the Patriots would have to make a player-for-player swap in order to get Graham, because he has $4.2 million left on his salary this season, per BSJ cap guru Miguel Benzan.

The player that makes the most sense in a trade, all things being even, would be Nate Solder. Like Graham, he's in the final year of his contract. His remaining salary ($3.25 million) makes it an almost even swap. Solder’s struggles have not dissipated, and it’s fair to wonder if the Patriots could get by moving Marcus Cannon to left tackle and inserting LaAdrian Waddle at right tackle, or just going with Waddle on the left side with Cam Fleming as the swing tackle. Plus, the Seahawks' offensive line has been terrible, and even a struggling Solder would be an upgrade.

However, with the recent news that Solder’s son, Hunter, has restarted his chemotherapy treatments, it would be cruel and unusual punishment for the Patriots to trade him across the country. He might even not report and threaten retirement if it happened. It would be such a mess, we can’t see the Patriots opening that can of worms.

The other option is to send Fleming and a draft pick (Patriots have their first-, second-, third- and sixth-round picks available) to Seattle, but that would be predicated on the Seahawks actually signing off on Fleming. Benzan reports a Graham-for-Fleming swap would eat up $3.28 million of the remaining $4.68 million the Patriots have in cap space. So it’s economically viable.

Whether it’s giving Allen another try, trading for Graham, or making a move for some other tight end, the Patriots have to do something at the position. It’s the middle of the season and Gronkowski is already telling them — and everyone else, in his own way — that he’s been overworked and needs some help at the position.

The Patriots have to do something. Only the entire season could hang on whether they choose to or not.