It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand the Patriots aren't just going to replace Rob Gronkowski — even the 2018 version of Gronk.
Between his receiving ability, catch radius. clutchness and blocking (which still wasn't near his prime level due to an accumulation of injuries), Gronkowski wrapped everything Bill Belichick ever wanted at the position into one big goofy package.
But the Patriots are going to need to replace him in the lineup. And with all apologies to Matt LaCosse, Jacob Hollister, Stephen Anderson and Ryan Izzo, they don't appear to have that player currently on the roster (but I think the pieces in that group are better than most realize and there's potential there).
And it wouldn't be fair to Tom Brady (or Julian Edelman) to head into the 2019 season without at least one reliable option at tight end.
While I think the options available in this draft are the preferred route for the Patriots to go at the position — similar to the double dip in 2010 — the team is still going to need a veteran fallback (at worst) option. Even in 2010, the Patriots had Alge Crumpler, who basically started the first half of the season until Gronkowski was ready, and ultimately played a lot of important snaps for that team.
And in studying the players likely available to the Patriots — and that could change over time — the player who makes the most sense for the Patriots is Kyle Rudolph of the Vikings.
There's so much to like there — and he's likely capable of much more with the Patriots for reasons we'll get into. But the timing and issues associated with acquiring Rudolph are complicated. Let's break it all down.
The first question: Does Rudolph, who -- like Gronk -- will turn 30 this year (Nov. 9), fit what the Patriots are looking for in their traditional Y tight end? Yes and ... not exactly.
The Patriots want a player who is at least 6-foot-5 or taller, at least 255 pounds, has good downfield ability, but must be a standout blocker. He does not have to be a great receiver, but needs to at least be a threat.
Rudolph is 6-foot-6 and about 255 pounds. He put on more weight this past season to up his blocking ability, and he didn't carry it well. When he's at his best, Rudolph might be a little light for what the Patriots are looking for. But it's close enough.
As a blocker, Rudolph is average. He wouldn't be a liability and he could be coached up a bit. But you're not going to make him the focal point of the running game. In fact, the Vikings often went with other players or ran away from Rudolph. Still, he's acceptable.
As far as his receiving ability, Rudolph is average down the field. He's not going to kill man coverage because his speed is also average (sort of like Gronk for much of last season), but he's smart and is an excellent route runner.
I could see Brady becoming an early believer in Rudolph for two reasons: He's extremely reliable within the offense, and he's an outstanding pass catcher. He may not get much separation, but he's not going to drop many passes when he has a chance. In fact, Rudolph's ability on contested catches might be the best at the position besides Gronkowski. That's not hyperbole. ProFootballFocus.com has him for 20 drops on 545 targets in his career (3.7 percent drop rate). Rudolph had two the past two seasons on 163 targets (2.3 percent). Like Gronkowski, he has huge mitts for hands (both measured 10.75 inches).
Take a look for yourself, including what he did against the Patriots last season:
A very wise NFL man once told me that you can tell exactly how an opposing team and player is viewed by Belichick by the way the Patriots defend him/them. It's like the harshest scouting report imaginable right in your face. Rudolph didn't get the Travis Kelce treatment from the Patriots, but they were obviously concerned about him. If Patrick Chung wasn't on Rudolph, he was getting hit off the line with help over the top. That shows respect for a player.
Of course, the natural question is ... why hasn't he been better in his career? First, look at his quarterbacks -- since entering the league in 2011, they've been Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel, Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford, Case Keenum and Kirk Cousins. And the offense he's been in, especially the past two seasons, has not been very tight end-friendly. A lot of flats and hooks. There's little imagination. There's no taking advantage of matchups. It's also no coincidence Rudolph's best season in 2016 (132 targets, 83 receptions, 840 yards, seven touchdowns) came with TE-friendly Norv Turner as offensive coordinator.
I don't think it's a stretch to say that Rudolph could be a 75-catch, 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown player with the Patriots and Brady. Oh, and he's extremely durable. He's played every game the past four seasons.
So he's a reasonable facsimile of Lesser Gronk with some upside if he comes into the Patriots' system.
Now, about acquiring him...
A COMPLICATED DEAL
According to league sources, the potential of a Rudolph-to-the-Patriots deal basically hinges on the draft for both teams. A deal could be done right now (for, say, a fourth-round pick given only one year of control). The Vikings need cap space, and ditching Rudolph's entire $7.625 million cap number (and cash) is one of the most appetizing ways to do that. But Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman is very disciplined. He's pretty much a paint-by-numbers GM. He doesn't like to think outside the box, and prefers to be methodical with little risk. That means he's unlikely to deal before securing a Rudolph replacement in the draft.
Minnesota selects 18th, which would be prime territory for top prospects T.J. Hockenson or Noah Fant. If they get one, they'll undoubtedly move on from Rudolph. Of course, the Patriots could just decide to use their immense draft capital to trade up and draft both, which makes a veteran trade moot.
Like we said, it's complicated.
Let's say the most likely scenario plays out: the Vikings select a Rudolph replacement in the draft. Spielman will want to get something in return for Rudolph, and the Patriots might try to wait it out and see if Rudolph is released (knowing the Vikings' cap situation). Spielman is very stubborn and may drag it out and hold onto Rudolph as long as possible. Will the Patriots be willing to wait?
Then there's also the issue of Rudolph's $7.525 million salary for '19, which shows just how much Gronkowski (due to make $9 million) was underpaid at his position (you could throw in Edelman and his $3 million as well). If Gronkowski was worth $9 million, then Rudolph is more of a $6 million player. Are the Patriots going to pay Rudolph at his going rate? Like Michael Bennett, Rudolph is searching for an extension and more money. Another complication.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
If the Patriots don't do a draft double, Rudolph seems to be the best choice for them in the post-Gronk era. He fits what they want at the position, and would be a reliable target for Brady with the potential for more in their system.
The Patriots have to hope the Vikings draft a tight end, and both Spielman and Belichick can come to reasonable compensation and don't do a release dance (for 2020, that could mean a comp pick at the end of the third but more likely a fourth- or fifth-round pick). Spielman would likely threaten to keep Rudolph and sign him to an extension (clearing cap space).
The Patriots should then let Rudolph play out the final year of his contract and see how things go. At worst, they let him test the market. Even if he has a big season in New England, Rudolph likely won't get a huge payday due to his age.
In the end, Rudolph to the Patriots just makes a lot of sense in a variety of ways. It likely wouldn't be a simple transaction, but it would be beneficial to both teams and Rudolph. Now? We wait for the draft.