New England Patriots

How will Rob Gronkowski’s retirement affect Patriots draft plans?

Don’t expect Bill Belichick to get sentimental about Rob Gronkowski’s retirement. Instead, look for the Patriots to look for a new weapon in the draft.

It’s highly unlikely the next Rob Gronkowski is somewhere in the 2019 NFL Draft class. That doesn’t mean his retirement won’t change the Patriots plans heading into the event. Look for New England to spend several picks on weapons who might develop into quality pass catchers for Tom Brady.

Gronkowski announced his retirement via Instagram on Sunday. He finishes his career just shy of his 30th birthday, but he’ll go down as arguably the best tight end in NFL history. There can be no debate about how good he was for New England. His presence on Bill Belichick’s roster covered up a lot of offensive weaknesses on the Patriots roster.

The obvious need for the Patriots in the wake of Gronkowski’s retirement is to draft a tight end to replace him as the team’s starter. They aren’t going to find a guy who can really replace the All-Pro, but they still need a player who can give the team quality production from the position.

That might cause New England to spend their No. 32 selection on a tight end. That may be too late to get Iowa tight ends, T.J. Hockenson or Noah Fant, but it could be enough to bring Irv Smith, Jr. to Foxborough. The former Alabama tight end lacks the top-end speed that might Gronkowski so tough to defend, but he projects as a plus receiver in the NFL. His versatility and willingness to use his body to block will certainly appeal to Belichick and his coaching staff.

The Patriots could also choose to wait another round or two to find a more limited replacement for Gronkowski. New England fans should keep a close eye on players like Jace Sternberger and Dawson Knox a little later in the draft. Neither is a complete prospect, but both guys can step right in and make plays in the passing game. As an added bonus, each player should be able to line up in the slot as a rookie as well.

Gronkowski’s retirement isn’t going to only show up in the Patriots’ need to draft a new tight end though. It’s also going to put pressure on the team’s front office to upgrade their options at wide receiver. Julian Edelman put in a great performance in the Super Bowl, but he’s not a No. 1 option. The options behind him in the team’s receiving room are even less inspiring.

That could cause New England to go out of character and look to draft a big-time receiver with one of their first several picks. Again, they don’t have the draft capital to get someone like D.K. Metcalf, but his college teammate A.J. Brown could be an intriguing selection late in Round 1. Guys like Deebo Samuel and Parris Campbell should also be available in that range.

One guy who could really interest the Patriots in Round 2 is N’Keal Harry. He’s got the prototypical size teams look for in their No. 1 wideout. Don’t be shocked to see New England take several wide receivers in this year’s draft to help replace the production Gronkowski gave them in recent years.

Next: Is Gronkowski the best tight end in NFL history?

It’s going to take several transactions for the Patriots to cope with losing one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL. It’s safe to assume several of them will occur in this year’s draft. Belichick can’t afford to go into the 2019 season without giving Brady more weapons to work with.

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