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Rob Gronkowski Too Good for TE Money: Patriots Need to Pay Up

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterAugust 2, 2016

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, speaks with reporters following an NFL football training camp practice Thursday, July 28, 2016, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Steven Senne/Associated Press

Patriots training camp has been one big party boat for Rob Gronkowski so far. 

When Gronkowski is not making circus catches, he's celebrating his teammates' catches, or pumping up the crowd or delivering one-liners to the press pool. It rained hammers and nails at the start and end of Sunday's practice, but instead of getting the rainy day blues, Gronk became the rowdiest dude in the mosh pit. He threw footballs into the crowd after touchdowns, high-fived fans and nearly smothered Bryce Williams with affection when the third-string tight end delivered a highlight of his own.

I wasn't there for Gronkaroo 2016, mind you. I was standing along the Eagles sideline, where it was more fun reading gushing, giddy Tweets from my colleagues than watching Zach Ertz drop passes from Sam Bradford.

Ben Volin @BenVolin

Gronk back shoulder fade, ball underthrown, he still jumps and makes low fingertip catch for TD, whips ball into crowd, mobbed by teammates

Patriots fans may be arriving in Foxboro by the thousands this year as Deflategate protesters with Garoppolo butterflies, but Gronkowski's soaking, steamy tent revival is turning their fear and rage into hope and joy.

The Rosenhaus brothers have also appeared at Patriots camp. The team opened up contract extension talks with Gronkowski's super-agents, according to Mike Garofalo of NFL.com. New England likes to lock up its core players before negotiations get awkward and contentious; the awkwardness and contentiousness are reserved for Patriots press conferences.

The Pats love Gronkowski, and they need him to compete this year and for the rest of Brady's extended twilight years. But they absolutely cannot afford to make Gronkowski the highest-paid tight end in the NFL.

(This is where the columnist dramatically pauses to fool readers who don't see a dramatic twist headed toward them like a wobbly pass from a third-string quarterback. Trust me, it works: read the comment thread!)

They need to make Gronkowski the highest-paid receiver of any kind in the NFL.

Gronkowski is entering the fifth year of a $54-million extension he signed in 2012. It was a hefty deal at the time, still the largest gross contract on the tight end market, but the market has passed it by. Gronkowski is scheduled to make $2.25 million in base salary this year, plus some bonuses. There are big paydays of $8 million and $9 million scheduled for 2018 and 2019, respectively, but Gronkowski shouldn't have to wait for 2018 to get paid when the Patriots need him to get Jimmy Garoppolo comfortable at the grown-up table and lead them to another championship now.

Tight ends such as Julius Thomas, Jordan Reed, Travis Kelce and Ertz now make as much or more than Gronkowski on a per-year basis. If Gronkowski is content with making a little more than them for the next few years, so be it. But he is worth a lot more. He knows it, the Rosenhaus brothers know it and the Patriots should be willing to capitulate the point.

Gronkowski cannot be pigeonholed as a mere tight end. He's an NFL A-lister in a category with J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Adrian Peterson and a few other non-quarterbacks who are as valuable as quarterbacks. Players like these deserve contracts that transcend the pay structure at their positions.

Top tight ends earn a little more than $10 million per year. Top wide receivers, according to the market set by Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas and A.J. Green, earn $14 million per year. Gronk deserves $15 million per year, $40 million or more guaranteed, a deal built atop the Bryant-Thomas contracts, not the existing top tight end contracts. New England has the future cap space to make it happen.

Skeptics might point to Gronkowski's injury history as a reason to be a little nervous about investing too much in one player. But Brady turns 39 years old on Wednesday, so short-term needs may be more pressing than long-term ones. Skeptics might also point to Gronk's goofy personality as a possible yellow flag. The Patriots have gristly determination to spare; the first days of practice suggest that they might benefit from little goofiness. 

We traveled down this tight end-wide receiver road two years ago when the Saints tagged Jimmy Graham as a franchise player. New Orleans categorized Graham was a tight end. Graham pointed to his production, role in the offense and horrendous blocking and demanded to be tagged as a wide receiver. OK, Graham didn't really point to his horrendous blocking, but the gap in franchise compensation between tight ends and wide receivers was $5 million for one year, so he lobbied hard for wide receiver status.

The Saints won an arbitration ruling; Graham was officially labeled a tight end. He eventually signed the richest tight end contract in history: four years at $40 million, more money than Gronkowski, but not quite No. 1 receiver money.

Graham was halfway between a Pro Bowl tight end and a go-to wide receiver. Gronkowski is a Pro Bowl tight end plus a go-to wide receiver. Pro Football Focus rated Gronkowski as the best run-blocking tight end in the NFL last year. His blocking is the driving force behind the Patriots' offensive mismatch science. Graham draws coverage from cornerbacks. Great blocking tight ends can stymie defensive ends and linebackers. Gronkowski is one of the few players in NFL history who can do both.

There’s another hard-to-classify superstar due for a new contract soon. Tyrann Mathieu is in the final year of a four-year rookie contract that had a total value of just over $3 million. He's embarrassingly underpaid, and the Cardinals have started preliminary discussions. But it's not clear if his next contract will make him one of the top paid safeties in the NFL (top contracts at the position max out at just over $10 million per year) or one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL (Josh Norman set the standard this offseason at $15 million).

GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 27:  Free safety Tyrann Mathieu #32 of the Arizona Cardinals celebrates after an interception during the second quarter of the NFL game against the San Francisco 49ers at the University of Phoenix Stadium on September 27, 2015 in
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The safety-cornerback issue is complicated for Mathieu because the Cardinals list him as a safety, and he made the Pro Bowl as a safety, but anyone who watches a Cardinals game knows that the Honey Badger is somewhere between a shutdown cornerback who happens to line up in the slot and some sort of genetically-engineered super soldier.

Gronkowski could be one of the NFL's best wide receivers, but he's too good at too many things to be limited to such a role. Mathieu would be classified among the NFL’s shutdown cornerbacks if he weren’t so valuable as a run defender, pass rusher and general disrupter. It’s ridiculous to think that an outdated position label could become a stumbling block in their negotiations. Sorry, but you are so good at so many things that it grants us an excuse to pay you less.

The two stars have a precedent, though, in J.J. Watt and his latest deal. Defensive end in a 3-4 scheme is traditionally not a big-money position. The Texans didn't try to label and lowball Watt. Instead of treating him like one of the league's best 3-4 defensive ends, they treated him like one of the NFL’s best players and offered him a tone-setting whopper of a contract. That’s the kind of treatment Gronkowski and Mathieu deserve.

Mathieu and Watt are recovering from surgeries right now, so let's return to Gronk and his totally not-bummer summer.

Gronkowski has a new partner in tight end mischief these days. Martellus Bennett, aka Black Unicorn, is accustomed to being both the most talented and quirkiest tight end on the roster, but he's adjusting well to life with Gronk. Gronkowski nicknamed their partnership "Ebony and Ivory" on Instagram, based on the old Paul McCartney/Stevie Wonder duet. Bennett countered with "Ken and Ryu" from the vintage Street Fighter arcade game.

MTV classics from the early 1980s and Street Fighter? Are we sure Tom Brady is the one who turns 39 on Wednesday?

Gronkowski and Bennett are likely to combine for 20 touchdown catches this year. With Gronkowski occupying the opponent's top defensive back and wide receivers to worry about, Bennett is going to draw man coverage against slow linebackers. Patriots running backs might not be covered at all. Few defenses will be able to challenge Brady when he returns.

Defenses will face better odds against Garoppolo in the first month of the season. If Mathieu is healthy, the Cardinals can match up against the Patriots without twisting their defense into a funnel cake. Assuming Watt is back for Week 3, the Patriots will need to keep a tight end in to block on passing downs.

When Brady is available, Gronkowski is one of the NFL's deadliest offensive weapons. With Brady suspended, Gronkowski is a neutralizer for opponent's impact defenders and a stabilizer for the whole offense.

He's also the hot pepper in their chili recipe, the guy who reminds everyone, from teammates to fans, that kicking the daylights out of opponents isn't supposed to be a grim, vengeful business. It's supposed to be fun.

It's hard to put a price on all of the things Gronkowski brings to the Patriots, this year and for the rest of the Brady era.

But $15 million per year sounds like a good place to start.

    

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @MikeTanierAll salary cap figures courtesy Over the Cap.com.

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