The idea of the New England Patriots trading five-time first-team All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski borders on absurdity. And yet, the chatter hasn't stopped.
In mid-June, Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio reported that the Patriots called other teams in an attempt to trade Gronkowski just days before April's draft. The tight end supposedly hasn't been happy since last year's training camp, and the organization's atmosphere is "starting to wear on him mentally and physically," according to NBC Sports Boston's Tom E. Curran.
The two sides, meanwhile, are stuck in a standoff over a potential salary restructure, according to Jeff Howe of The Athletic. Gronkowski already owns the NFL's most lucrative deal among tight ends, but he ranks fourth in average annual salary behind Jimmy Graham, Travis Kelce and Jordan Reed and sixth in guaranteed money, per Spotrac. Considering how vital Gronkowski is to New England's success, those final two numbers border on insulting.
It should thus come as no surprise that other teams still view the situation as fluid.
"Where's the restructure of his contract?" an anonymous AFC personnel executive told Greg A. Bedard of Boston Sports Journal (via NESN's Dakota Randall). "Until that's done, I think he's still available. I wouldn't be surprised if [Bill] Belichick is going to test Gronk's buy-in with the contract."
A source told Florio last month that a new deal is "likely," but "nothing is imminent." According to Bedard, five league executives "feel that [head coach Bill] Belichick is just testing Gronkowski's mettle and the tight end will eventually have his contract tweaked."
The Patriot Way is built upon an all-in approach from each of the team's players, especially those considered leaders within the locker room. Gronkowski has always been flighty with interests beyond football, which makes him an atypical Belichickian disciple. Earlier retirement talk may have more merit than initially believed.
However, the Patriots operate on a Super Bowl standard. Without Gronkowski's mismatch potential, the journey would become nearly impossible to navigate for New England.
Right now, the Patriots must be focused on maximizing Tom Brady's final years. They're already set to be without Julian Edelman for the first four games of the 2018 campaign due to his performance-enhancing drug suspension. New England also traded Brandin Cooks, who amassed 1,082 receiving yards last season, to the Los Angeles Rams in April, while Danny Amendola signed with the Miami Dolphins during free agency.
Imagine the following scenario: The Patriots open the season on Sept. 9 against the Houston Texans with running back James White returning as their leading receiver instead of the game's best tight end.
Gronkowski isn't just a near-unstoppable weapon for Brady to exploit; he dictates how opponents defend the Patriots.
"I heard someone on TV say, 'Well, he's got nine inches on [his defender]," former NFL defensive coordinator and current Cincinnati Bengals linebacker coach Jim Haslett said after Gronkowski's record-breaking 17-touchdown season in 2011, per the Washington Post's Barry Svrluga. "I said, 'Well, put anybody else on him and he's got six.'"
The four-time Super Bowl MVP is the best ever to sit in the pocket and pick apart defenses, but that's a tall task when receivers aren't consistently making themselves available.
If the Patriots did trade Gronkowski, they'd have to radically alter their offense. They utilized two-tight-end formations on 24 percent of their snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus' Brent Rollins. That number would likely decrease in favor of a greater emphasis on the backfield and wide receivers.
Since the Pats lack a difference-making wideout, they may instead lean toward more two-back sets or utilize White, first-round pick Sony Michel or Rex Burkhead out of the backfield as slot options. While New England's coaching staff ranks among the NFL's best in devising game plans to exploit defensive weaknesses, it would quickly become limited without the flexibility Gronkowski brings as a receiver and blocker.
Free agency can't provide a Gronkowski replacement at this point. Dez Bryant could be a short-term solution as a red-zone or third-down target, while Eric Decker already stated he's open to the possibility of joining the Patriots. Both Bryant and Decker are large wide receivers, but Gronkowski is a bigger target who adds something they can't as an in-line option.
Meanwhile, the top available tight end, Antonio Gates, resides in limbo. The NFL's all-team leader in receiving touchdowns by a tight end (114) doesn't plan to retire this offseason, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. However, the possibility of playing with Brady may not be enough to lure him out of Southern California.
"I believe the only place Antonio wants to play is the Chargers," former teammate LaDainian Tomlinson said during an interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio (via Pro Football Talk's Charean Williams). "I think he has the mind frame of: 'If I go play, it's gonna be for the Chargers; if it's not the Chargers, then I'm good; I won't play.'"
The Patriots' options are limited four months into free agency. There's a reason why these particular veterans have yet to sign with a team. While Bryant, Decker and Gates all have name recognition, they're each on the downside of their respective careers and displayed diminished skills last season.
Perhaps New England receives an offer it can't refuse for Gronkowski. The San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans make the most sense as possible landing spots based on their organizational ties to New England. Jimmy Garoppolo spent three-and-a-half seasons working as the Patriots' backup quarterback, while Titans general manager Jon Robinson served as Kraft's director of college scouting when the franchise chose Gronkowski in the second round of the 2010 draft.
However, a logical deal for Gronk doesn't exist, as the Patriots offense would take a massive hit if he were to be traded.
A Gronkowski trade is the dumbest thing New England could do short of suddenly giving up on Brady because he's too old.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.