Rob Gronkowski’s retirement leaves New England Patriots in tough spot

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Some connected with the Patriots felt strongly early last week that Gronkowski was likely to retire, and it chagrins the organization that the free-agent receiver/tight end crop is now totally denuded after established tight end Jared Cook—who I am told will not reconsider his decision—committed to signing with New Orleans last week. It’s no exaggeration to say the Patriots’ skill-position players, post-Gronk, might be the worst in the Belichick Era.

Agent Drew Rosenhaus’ version of the events, told to me late Sunday night here at the Biltmore: He said Bill Belichick reached out to Rosenhaus on Thursday to check about his tight end’s status. Rosenhaus called Gronkowski and said he should give the Patriots a decision soon. And on Sunday afternoon, before Rosenhaus flew from Fort Lauderdale to Phoenix, he said the 29-year-old Gronkowski called him to make the retirement official. “It was time,” Rosenhaus said.

Gronkowski’s words, via Rosenhaus: “It’s time. I just won another championship. I’m going out on top. I just want to do nothing for a while. I just want to be me. I just want to have fun.”

Gronkowski’s friend and Patriot backup, Dwayne Allen, told me Sunday night he was not surprised by the decision. “It was a day-to-day thing in the tight end room last year in New England,” Allen said. “He’d say, ‘This is it.’ And then, after being able to think about it in the offseason, he came to that same conclusion.”

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It all started at 20 years old on stage at the NFL draft when my dream came true, and now here I am about to turn 30 in a few months with a decision I feel is the biggest of my life so far. I will be retiring from the game of football today. I am so grateful for the opportunity that Mr. Kraft and Coach Belichick gave to me when drafting my silliness in 2010. My life experiences over the last 9 years have been amazing both on and off the field. The people I have meet, the relationships I have built, the championships I have been apart of, I just want to thank the whole New England Patriots organization for every opportunity I have been giving and learning the great values of life that I can apply to mine. Thank you to all of Pats Nation around the world for the incredible support since I have been apart of this 1st class organization. Thank you for everyone accepting who I am and the dedication I have put into my work to be the best player I could be. But now its time to move forward and move forward with a big smile knowing that the New England Patriots Organization, Pats Nation, and all my fans will be truly a big part of my heart for rest of my life. It was truly an incredible honor to play for such a great established organization and able to come in to continue and contribute to keep building success. To all my current and past teammates, thank you for making each team every year special to be apart of. I will truly miss you guys. Cheers to all who have been part of this journey, cheers to the past for the incredible memories, and a HUGE cheers to the uncertain of whats next.

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The Patriots are a lesser team today, obviously, because of Gronkowski’s retirement after nine starry seasons. But who can blame him, after three back surgeries, four arm surgeries, an ACL surgery, multiple concussions, and calf, quad and Achilles injuries? Gronkowski entered the NFL in 2010 with a pesky herniated disk condition, and in his 131 games since, he survived his physical maladies to be one of the best tight ends ever.

He blocked as well as any tight end of this generation—and unlike so many gifted offensive tight ends, he embraced blocking as part of his job. He caught the ball downfield as well as any tight end of this generation. The other three greats of this century, Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, averaged between 10.8 and 12.4 yards per reception. Gronkowski averaged 15.1, more than Jerry Rice (14.8) and Tyreek Hill (14.6).

More than anything, Gronkowski was there when his team needed him. This year, New England milked him through the middle part of the season, but he played all 169 offensive snaps in two tight games—the AFC title game (97) and the Super Bowl (72). On the 81st New England snap of the title game, Gronkowski beat Eric Berry for a 25-yard completion to set up the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute of the fourth quarter. On the 94th snap, and on perhaps the biggest third-down conversion of his career, Gronkowski beat Eric Berry for a 15-yard pass to set up the winning score in overtime. On the 60th offensive play of the Super Bowl, in a 3-3 duel with the Rams, he went 29 yards down the seam to catch a Tom Brady pass, setting up the winning touchdown.

As he told Rosenhaus: “I’m going out on top.”

That he certainly is. It’s the tight-end equivalent of Jim Brown retiring on the set of “The Dirty Dozen” in London in 1966, coming off an MVP season as the ’65 rushing champ for Cleveland. Gronkowski played his last game for New England at 29 years, 9 months. Brown played his last game for Cleveland at 29 years, 10 months.

Gronkowski’s decision is sepia-toned this morning, and the Patriots will sometime soon celebrate his nine-year contributions to one of the great teams ever to play the sport. He was well-liked and respected as a teammate, those inside the team say, because of his reliability, his toughness and his daily personality. Said Dwayne Allen: “Not only was he a great player against any defense—double teams, triple teams, chipped by defensive ends, covered by great corners—but he was one of the guys all the time. He was Rob with the media, Rob in the locker room, Rob on the field. And if he was hurt, or hurting, he never talked about it. And as a competitor, I haven’t met many like him. I was at his house once, playing basketball, and once, he just turned it on. He stepped behind the three-point line and started draining threes. Where’d that come from? That was just Rob.”

Yes, there will be cool Gronk stories. But in football terms for New England, reality bites. So much about him walking away is bad, bad news for the franchise.

It leaves the Patriots woefully short of offensive weapons as they try to remain the game’s dominant team. They do not have an established NFL tight end, and after free-agent Allen signed in Miami, the tight-end depth chart (Stephen Anderson, Mass LaCosse, Jacob HollisterRyan Izzo) is the worst in the NFL. Julian Edelman is coming off his Super Bowl MVP performance, but there is no veteran help for him beyond Chris Hogan, and there is no consistent deep threat on the roster other than the occasionally effective Phillip Dorsett. The running backs are fine—Sony Michel keys that group. But if Tom Brady takes the field at 42 with that group of receivers, good luck to him.

Lucky for the Patriots there are three legitimate first-round tight ends in this year’s draft. With six picks between 32 and 101, New England will be able to move around to position itself for a tight end and wide receiver early. But we’re assuming all picks hit, and that’s a bad assumption, even for the wise Patriots. More likely, a pre-draft trade (A.J. GreenMohamed SanuSterling Shepard?) using the Patriots’ draft capital wouldn’t surprise me.

Rosenhaus, 31 years an agent, was a bit melancholy Sunday night. “I’m in a daze,” he said, sitting by the huge lawn in the back of the Biltmore. “Representing Rob was so much fun, something special. Such a great guy, and always the same. Always up. You try as an agent to do everything you can for your clients, and I asked Rob if there was anything I could do for him, if there was anything I could ask the Patriots to make his job better. He said no, there’s really not anything. Then I asked his dad, ‘You sure he wants to give up $10 million this year?’ He told me, ‘Drew, he’s got all the money he needs.’ “

So that’s it … or is it? Rosenhaus said it wouldn’t shock him if Gronkowski decided to come back sometime in 2019. We’ll see. There’s nothing to indicate a return to football now. For now, there’s a void in New England, and in the NFL. A really fun player, a really good player, walked away with something left in the tank.

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How Broncos’ Von Miller is taking his game to the next level

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Broncos: Englewood, Colo.
Saturday, July 20
Von Miller is the key to the Denver season

Late in the first padded practice of the year for the Broncos, Von Miller lined up on the defensive left edge, outside rookie tight end Noah Fant. Miller, suddenly 30, has always had a get-off stance similar to Lawrence Taylor’s, one foot back, leaning forward, threatening the inside but usually going outside, so you have to respect both. At the snap, he beat Fant outside and charged at rookie quarterback Drew Lock; it would have been sack in real life, but you don’t sack the quarterback in training camp. Next snap: Miller dropped three steps back into coverage, then pivoted quick and cut to his left, velcroing himself to an undrafted wideout, Romell Guerrier, in the slot. Lock, nothing there to his right, threw incomplete to the left side of the field.

The second play is more important to the 2019 Broncos, strangely enough.

The new coaching staff, led by pass-rush maestro Vic Fangio, has set out to make a very good player great at all things. Last year, Von Miller was not. He was sloppy. He got called for three encroachment penalties in the first half against the Niners late in the season and got yanked by coach Vance Joseph. PFF rated him the 16th-best edge-rusher in the game (low for him), 57th in coverage and 127th against the run. Numbers don’t lie. Miller was not a complete player last year. That was a significant factor in the Broncos sinking from third in team defense in 2017 to 22nd last year—and the dismissal of Joseph. Poll 32 offensive line coaches, and Miller might still be the most respected edge-rusher in the game. But in an era when edge-rush is all-important, it’s interesting to note that Miller, in eight seasons, has never won Defensive Player of the Year.

So why am I talking about blanket-covering Romell Guerrier in the slot? Because Fangio and his respected outside linebackers coach, Brandon Staley, are building Miller from the ground up, fundamental by fundamental. They know he can rush the passer, and know he can be better even at that. But they know he has to be better at the other aspects of the game, because he’s the defensive leader of the team, and other players follow him. If Miller’s working his footwork and his drops and coverage early in training camp, and that shows up at nighttime when practice tape gets dissected in front of the team, well, then Bradley Chubb and Derek Wolfe and all the new guys are going to see that and they’re going to work to be perfect too.

After practice, I said to Miller I thought that coverage play was a good example of the re-made Miller—and the respect he must have for Fangio early on.

“A hundred percent,” said Miller. “Just do the job you’re asked to do, coached to do, every play.”

More Miller: “I got a great coach here, one of the best coaches I’ve ever had in my life. We have great leadership here but he’s an outside linebacker guy. He’s coached a lot of great ones. I wanna be his greatest product yet. It’s the little things, like coach Fangio says. When you really focus on the little things it turns into a change of game. It turns into a whole different athlete. I bought into that. I bought into my outside linebackers coach as well, Coach Staley. He stays up super late thinking about how to make me better … I can really appreciate that. I bought into whatever those coaching points that they give me.”

Like this one on encroachment/offside. Miller has liked to take chances at the snap to get a millisecond of an edge. A myth, Fangio told his team one day. We had 60 sacks with the Panthers in 1996 and we jumped offside four times all season.

“Every player is going to have an assignment and a technique on every play,” said Staley, a rising coach under Fangio who came from Chicago with him. “If you can master those two things, then your beautiful instincts can take over. What Vic has taught Von—and with Vic, you’re talking about the Bill Walsh of outside linebackers, he’s had Kevin Greene, Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Khalil Mack—is, ‘These are parts of your game we think can get better. And it will lead to more for you.’ That’s not a knock on Von. It’s a compliment. There’s another gear he can get to. And to Von’s credit, he has had a refreshing humility about being coached.”

Said Fangio: “Von’s been excellent, receptive from the beginning.”

The Broncos, coming off the 11-21 Joseph era, have been harped on by Fangio about the little things. Denver was seventh last year in turnover margin in the NFL; excellent, really, considering the top six made the playoffs. But the offense stumbled all season, and the lack of discipline on both sides (30th in penalties) crippled consistency. You’d think a defense with the bookend rush of Miller and Bradley Chubb and a secondary led by the great Chris Harris Jr., could make up for that, but they were 22nd in explosive plays allowed. Fangio watched tape of the season and couldn’t believe all the defensive breakdowns.

Fangio, getting acclimated to Denver over the past few months, has been to a few Nuggets and Rockies games. He loves talking to other coaches. Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce and his staff attended Saturday’s practice.

“The details of each sport need to be tended to,” Fangio said, asked about lessons from his baseball manager friends Bud Black and Joe Maddon, and those in other sports. “And there’s team organization, team morale, maintaining the structure of a team where the individual is promoted so much. I like watching all games. Seeing the other games just solidifies to me that fundamentals is what wins. In a basketball game, a guy doesn’t box out correctly, and the other team scores on a putback. Baseball, they miss a cutoff, a run scores, you lose by one and it’s a huge play. Fundamentals is ultimately what causes you to win and lose.

“I think the other thing, and this has really been the case with Von, is players want the truth. Joe Maddon told me: ‘If I tell the truth to a player and he doesn’t like it, he’s gonna be mad for a couple days. If I lie to the player and he figures that out, he’s going to be mad at me forever.’ And rightfully so. We’re in this business to make people better, not gloss over things.”

At practice Saturday, the Denver radio host/FOX broadcaster/former NFL guard Mark Schlereth looked out at Miller during practice on a broiler of a Colorado morning. “I’ll make this prediction: Von’s sack numbers will go down, but he’ll be a better player at everything, and he’ll open it up for other guys on the defense. Derek Wolfe could have a career year with Von and Chubb being better at the total game. Von is like the Matrix; the things he can do athletically are not of this world. But now what I think Vic has done is impress on him that there’s no more freelancing. If one guy on the defense freelances, he f—- us all. Plus, we have to get out of this business of equating sacks with total success of a pass-rusher. It’s nonsense. Von can get 12 sacks and be the best pass-rusher in the league—playing the right way, he opens it up for 10 guys to make plays, and for this to be a complete defense.”

It’s a balancing act for Miller, who told me he wants to break Bruce Smith’s all-time sack record. Interesting numbers:

  • Bruce Smith, after his eighth NFL season, had 92 sacks entering his age-30 season. He finished his career with 200 sacks.
  • Miller, after his eighth NFL season, has 98 sacks entering his age-30 season.

So Smith got 108 sacks after his 30th birthday. “That’s encouraging, definitely encouraging,” Miller told me—but he also said he, like Fangio, is not going to make proclamations. Miller has become friends with Smith, who came to Miller’s Pass Rush Summit this year and spilled everything he had for Miller.

Ask those who have played with Miller and those who coach him now, and they’ll tell you he likes to be coached, and coached hard. If Miller takes it all in, Denver will be far better on defense, and the pressure on Joe Flacco to lead an explosive offense will be lessened. Miller knows what’s on his shoulders. It’s only the pressure of the 2019 Broncos season. He’s okay with that. Just a gut feeling here: Miller’s smart; he majored in Poultry Sciences at Texas A&M and has a big chicken/turkey production facility in Texas. He had a good presence at the Kentucky Derby doing TV for NBC with Dylan Dreyer on the network’s pre-race show. He gets it, though, that he needs to keep the big thing the big thing.

“I do a lot of stuff good,” Miller told me, “but the thing I do best is play football.” Fangio’s counting on that.

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These statistics prove DeAndre Hopkins is the NFL’s best receiver

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It was notable last week that the Madden NFL 20 game gave four players a near-perfect rating of 99: Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, Bobby Wagner and DeAndre Hopkins. Donald is a no-brainer, Mack nearly one, Wagner as consistent a player as there is in football, and Hopkins—well, I dug into him a bit, and I love the honor bestowed by the Madden people. Hopkins is real, and he’s spectacular.

Let’s compare Hopkins to the all-world Julio Jones. The raw numbers paint a slight edge for Jones in 2018:

Jones: 113 catches, 1,677 yards, eight touchdowns, 104.8 receiving yards per game.
Hopkins: 115 catches, 1,572 yards, 11 touchdowns, 98.3 receiving yards per game.

The deeper numbers, per PFF:

• Jones dropped eight passes. Hopkins dropped none, which, since PFF began keeping official drop stats in 2006, was the most sure-handed season by far a receiver has had. No receiver in the last 13 years has 110 or more catches and zero drops in a season.

• Hopkins saw a “catchable but inaccurate” pass thrown his way 46 times in 169 total targets (27.2 percent of his targets), and he caught 35—meaning he caught 76 percent of all catchable but difficult passes. Jones had far fewer “catchable but inaccurate” balls thrown to him, just 23, and caught 14 of them. That’s 61 percent of balls caught by Jones on challenging throws.

What does it mean? Hopkins had a tougher job catching balls from Deshaun Watson than Jones had in dealing with Matt Ryan, and Hopkins did a more efficient job on the tough catches than Jones.

So Hopkins had far fewer drops than Jones, and he made far more tough catches.

Case closed: The best wide receiver in football in 2018 was Hopkins, and the Madden game recognized it.

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