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Bill Belichick Trading Rob Gronkowski Would Be A Change Of Course

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- During the Bill Belichick era, the New England Patriots have established a well-earned reputation for being a no-nonsense, all-business, ice-cold organization. Nobody on the roster is ever safe, from special teamers to Pro Bowlers, and the list of notable players sent packing from Foxboro over the years has grown quite long. Lawyer Milloy, Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, Adam Vinatieri and Randy Moss are among those who have learned this reality the hard way.

And so with Rob Gronkowksi, a four-time First Team All-Pro, engaged in what seems to be a battle on contract terms with the Patriots, there's a growing belief/concern/expectation/fear from many that the tight end will be the next player to feel Bill Belichick's wrath. It's only a matter of time, some might say, before Gronkowski finds himself getting traded to the Bengals for a mediocre player and a pick that ends up being 22nd overall in 2021.

Something like that could, obviously, take place. Belichick has taught us all to never rule out anything. But if he were to send Gronkowski somewhere else this offseason, it would be out of character.

It's not that Belichick has been hesitant to get rid of All-Pro-caliber players. It's just that he generally waits until their All-Pro days are behind them. And when it comes to assessing such things, he's been remarkably excellent.

During the Belichick era, from 2000 to the current day, the Patriots have had 18 players named to the First Team All-Pro. Four are still on the team: Tom Brady, Matthew Slater, Stephen Gostkowski, and Gronkowski. Three others managed to finish their careers in New England: Matt Light, Jerod Mayo, and Rodney Harrison.

Using my fingers to count, I've somewhat quickly deduced that there would be 11 First Team All-Pros remaining on this list, players whose times in New England ended before their careers ended. So here's a look at who those players were, when they were All-Pros, how much longer they played, and how many more All-Pro honors they earned in their careers.

Ty Law
First Team All-Pro: 1998, 2003
Departed Patriots: 2005 (Released)
Final NFL Season: 2009
Post-Pats First Team All-Pro: Zero

Lawyer Milloy
First Team All-Pro: 1999
Departed Patriots: 2003 (Released)
Final NFL Season: 2010
Post-Pats First Team All-Pro: Zero

Mike Vrabel
First Team All-Pro: 2007
Departed Patriots:  2009 (Traded)
Final NFL Season: 2010
Post-Pats First Team All-Pro: Zero

Randy Moss
First Team All-Pro: 2007
Departed Patriots: 2010 (Traded)
Final NFL Season: 2012
Post-Pats First Team All-Pro: Zero

Richard Seymour
First Team All-Pro: 2003, 2004, 2005
Departed Patriots: 2009 (Traded)
Final NFL Season: 2012
Post-Pats First Team All-Pros: Zero

Asante Samuel
First Team All-Pro: 2007
Departed Patriots: 2008 (Free Agency)
Final NFL Season: 2013
Post-Pats First Team All-Pro: Zero

Wes Welker
First Team All-Pro: 2009, 2011
Departed Patriots: 2013 (Free Agency)
Final NFL Season: 2015
Post-Pats First Team All-Pro: Zero

Logan Mankins
First Team All-Pro: 2010
Departed Patriots:  2014 (Traded)
Final NFL Season: 2015
Post-Pats First Team All-Pro: Zero

Vince Wilfork
First Team All-Pro: 2012
Departed Patriots: 2015 (Declined Option/Free Agency)
Final NFL Season: 2016
Post-Pats First Team All-Pro: Zero

Adam Vinatieri
First Team All-Pro: 2002, 2004
Departed Patriots: 2006 (Free Agency)
Final NFL Season: Still active
Post-Pats First Team All-Pro: One (2014)

Darrelle Revis
First Team All-Pro: 2014
Departed Patriots: 2015
Final NFL Season: Still active
Post-Pats First Team All-Pro: Zero

Also of note, here are the ages of those players in their final seasons with the Patriots:

Samuel: 26
Milloy: 29
Seymour: 29
Revis: 29
Law: 30
Welker: 31
Mankins: 31
Vrabel: 33
Vinatieri: 33
Moss: 33
Wilfork: 33

Of the 11 players, only two departed New England immediately after their All-Pro seasons: Darrelle Revis and Asante Samuel. Both situations were unique; Revis' pact seemed more or less like a wink-wink one-year agreement, while Samuel's contract stipulated the the Patriots could not place the franchise tag on him for the '08 season.

Of the 11 players, only one went on to earn another First Team All-Pro: Adam Vinatieri.

Clearly, Belichick has said farewell to a ton of talent over the years, and the track record is such that it makes the concept of trading Gronkowski seem like something that could actually take place. But Belichick has been wise to always maximize that talent before making a move.

Occasionally, Belichick has had to bend to the salary demands of certain players. Wilfork skipped voluntary workouts in 2009 before getting franchised in 2010. He was unhappy, but he and the team worked out a lucrative extension that ensured Wilfork would remain with the Patriots through his prime. He was upset once again 2014, going so far as to ask for the team to release him. But eventually cooler heads prevailed, and Wilfork signed an extension that allowed him to end his Patriots career as a Super Bowl champion.

Mankins was likewise displeased with his contract at various points of his Patriots career. He held out of offseason workouts and ended up skipping nearly half of the regular season in 2010, and then he had the franchise tag placed on him in 2011. When Mankins seemingly called out Robert Kraft in 2010, it appeared as though his days in New England were numbered. That ended up being true, but not until Belichick made sure to squeeze out the remaining prime years of Mankins' career. The Patriots did sign him to a long-term, big-money deal in 2011, but unceremoniously dumped him to Tampa Bay in late August of 2014.

There is one obvious whiff on the list, and that's Vinatieri. Certainly, nobody anticipated in 2005 that Vinatieri would still be booting field goals in the NFL 13 years later. Even still, the Colts were desperate for a reliable kicker and threw a ton of money at the veteran who had won three Super Bowls. It paid off for the Colts immediately, and Belichick had himself a decent backup plan in drafting Gostkowski.

Seymour did have success in Oakland, earning Second Team All-Pro honors in 2011 and making Pro Bowls in 2010 and 2011. But the best years of Seymour's career were played for the Patriots, and trading him ended up netting the Patriots the pick that was used to select Nate Solder. It was a case of Belichick masterfully managing an asset.

Law was good for a brief while after leaving, leading the NFL with 10 picks in 2005 for the Jets and earning one last Pro Bowl nod. Milloy was good but never earned another Pro Bowl spot or any All-Pro accolades. Welker, who played under the franchise tag in his final season with the Patriots, caught 10 touchdowns the year after he left New England. But his production dropped precipitously and continued to do so until he was out of the league three years later.

Vrabel was essentially cooked, as was Moss. Revis had just one good season left. In those cases, considering their salaries, Belichick cut bait at the right time.

All of which brings us to Gronkowski. He'll turn 29 years old next month, and based on the way he performed in the 2017 season, it appears as though the only thing that could prevent him from playing at a First Team All-Pro level would be an injury. He missed two games (one due to injury, one for suspension) and was targeted zero times in another, but he still recorded 1,084 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Despite missing more than half of the AFC Championship Game due to a concussion, he made 16 postseason catches for 218 yards and three touchdowns. He was unstoppable in the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles.

The last image we have of Gronkowski is one of a player still at his physical peak, one still poised to dominate at his position for at least another year or two. Generally speaking, Belichick has made sure to not trade away that caliber of player before maximizing his value.

What that means for Gronkowski, in the short term, is doing whatever he can to try to bump up that salary in the short term. Playing careers are fickle and brief, so a player who sustains such physical damage as Gronkowski should probably do what he cans to make as much money as he can while he can. (If the Patriots and any other football team wants to maximize the value of a player, then the player should generally be afforded the same right to maximize his own value.)

From that perspective, this situation appears to be a disagreement about money. The Patriots took care of Gronkowski last year with an incentive-laden contract, and they can (and likely will) take care of him again for 2018, and perhaps even 2019.

The long history of those highly talented players being sent along at surprising times does indicate that it would be unwise to expect to see Gronkowski spending the next four to five years in a Patriots uniform before gracefully walking away from the game. It seems at this point in time as though that certainly will not happen.

But in the short term -- just as Belichick did with Mankins, Wilfork, and Welker under varying circumstances -- the Patriots can solve this issue by paying a few extra million to a player who seems to be worth the money in his late 20s.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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