Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick will have plenty of tough decisions to make in the NFL draft, which opens Thursday night. AP photo

The last time the New England Patriots went into the NFL draft with his many holes, they played in a concrete crypt masquerading as an NFL stadium. There was not a single Lombardi Trophy or Super Bowl banner on display, never mind six of them.

Now, entering Bill Belichick’s 21st season as head coach, the Patriots have what the rebuild football pundits swore was coming for years. There are gaping holes at some positions, while others are held down by aging veterans who, while still talented, have lost a step or two.

For the first time since 1993, the Patriots do not have an experienced incumbent quarterback. You may not have heard this news, but six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I don’t blame you if this comes as a shock. It was underreported.

As of Wednesday morning, following the trade of unretired Rob Gronkowski to Tampa Bay, the Patriots have a dozen picks. Most of those picks are in the middle and late rounds. Three in the third, two in the fourth, and four in the sixth.

A brief aside on this Gronk out-of-retirement thing. There’s been a lot of chatter and hot takes over the last couple of days about Gronk quitting on the Patriots and shooting his way out of town with an insincere retirement. That’s all hot take nonsense. It’s obviously mentally and physically tiring to play in the NFL, even more so for a coach like Belichick. For a guy who was battered on every play like Gronk, it’s reasonable to think he meant it when he said he wasn’t in the right frame of mind to go through it all again in the 2019 season.

Now that he’s had a year off, it’s also reasonable to think he feels well enough mentally and physically to give it a go with Brady — the only quarterback he wants to play with — in Tampa Bay. Professional athletes don’t owe you anything, other than their best effort on the field, and Gronk always gave that in New England. If he thinks he’ll have fun in Tampa with Tom, wish him well and gaze at the banners in Gillette Stadium.

Anyway… whoever plays quarterback for the Patriots needs teammates who can get open and catch the ball. If Belichick trades up to the front of the first round line to grab quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert or Jordan Love or whomever, or sticks with Jarrett Stidham, that QB needs weapons. Julian Edelman is going to turn 34 in May, and he’s not a young 34. N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers, both entering their second season, have the chance to grow and find rhythm with a young quarterback.

The tight end position must be addressed, either in the draft or free agency. The Patriots don’t need another Gronk, but they need more than the shadows of tight ends they had last season.

Longtime kicker Stephen Gostkowski was recently released. Does Belichick use a middle round pick to tab Gostkowski’s replacement, like he did in the fourth round of the 2006 when he picked Gostkowski? Will University of Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, the top kicker in the draft, last past the third round? Do the Patriots make a bold move and trade into the second round to get Blankenship? Kicker has been a source of stability for the Patriots since Adam Vinatieri arrived in 1996. Now it’s a big question mark.

The Patriots lost three linebackers to free agency: Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts. They also could use a pass rusher. Maybe that’s Chase Winovich, who had a decent rookie season in 2019. The defensive secondary is the strength, with last season’s NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore the best corner in the league. Age is the factor in the secondary. Devin and Jason McCourty will be 33 this season, as will Patrick Chung. A young safety who can learn from those veterans should be on the Patriots draft board.

The Patriots are not the top team in the AFC anymore, not by a long shot. They’re probably not the top team in the AFC East. Over the years, Belichick has reinvented this team in pieces, and had success doing it. Now is his chance to make wholesale improvements.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM



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