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Gronkowski Trade Shines Light On Patriots' Uncharacteristically Troubling Position For 2020

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- Correct me if I'm wrong, but the longstanding belief in New England regarding Bill Belichick has always been this: He will get rid of a player a year too early instead of a year too late, so that his team never gets stuck in a bad position. He milks every last ounce of production he can get from a player at a fair value, then he cuts bait and lets some other team throw the big dollars at the past-his-prime or just-not-quite-worth-it player.

And so, when it came to speculating the end of Tom Brady's Patriots career, that was always assumed to be the case. Whether it was going to come in 2014 or 2017 or 2020, the end was always going to involve Belichick thanking Brady for the historical career while letting some other sucker pay top dollar to the old man.

The Patriots Machine™ would just keep on rolling, just as it always has.

Here in 2020, it seems like the first part of that forecast played out as planned. But the second part? At this point in time, it seems like an impossibility.

Of course, of course, of course, OF COURSE -- yes, it's still April. Yes, the draft -- and countless possible trades -- will take place this week. Yes, people have been forecasting The End Of The Mighty Patriots© for a decade or more. And yes, it would be foolish to try to make that case at this precise moment.

That's not the goal here. The goal here, merely, is to wonder ... do the Patriots have a master plan? When it comes to ensuring that 2020 is better than 2019, do they have any plan?

That's not a sky-is-falling consideration. It is legitimate.

Consider the facts.

The Buccaneers signed Brady to a contract that will pay him $25 million in 2020 and $25 million in 2021. The Patriots clearly could not have come anywhere close to matching that offer, because they have barely over $1 million in cap space. With roughly $1.1 million in cap space, the Patriots have the least amount of space in the entire NFL.

That tight window has contributed to a rather quiet, borderline silent free agency period for the Patriots.

Outside of re-signing and franchise tagging their own players, the Patriots have signed Beau Allen, Adrian Phillips, Danny Vitale, Damiere Byrd, Cody Davis, Brian Hoyer, and Brandon Copeland. Prior to free agency, they signed Lenzy Pipkins, who -- yes -- is a real person, not a Lord Of The Rings character.

Those are the only additions made by the Patriots. At the same time, the team watched as Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton, Elandon Roberts, Ted Karras, Nate Ebner and Phillip Dorsett left in free agency. Stephen Gostkowski was released. Ben Watson retired. The team also traded veteran safety Duron Harmon for next to nothing as a means to clear some desperately needed cap space.

Being so tight against the cap seems to have prevented the Patriots and Belichick from executing the normal course of action after a disappointing season. After missing the playoffs in 2002, Belichick brought in Rodney Harrison and sent Lawyer Milloy packing; they won back-to-back Super Bowls. After a soul-sucking end to the 2006 season, Belichick went out and got Randy Moss and Wes Welker; football history was forever impacted. After a stuck-in-the-mud 2009 season, Belichick drafted Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. He also released Adalius Thomas and traded Moss early in the year. The team went 14-2, and though they lost their lone playoff game, a year later they'd begin an utterly preposterous stretch of reaching the AFC Championship Game for eight straight seasons, with five Super Bowl appearances and three more championships sprinkled throughout.

The bottom line: When things have gone "bad" in New England, it's been relative. And they don't stay bad for long.

The question now, after last season's 12-4 record was proven to be a bit of a mirage, is how can the Patriots avoid going from relatively bad to significantly worse in 2020?

The road map is difficult to envision.

Again, revert to the facts.

Last year, the Patriots had the best defense in the entire NFL. By a mile. It helped them win some low-scoring games, but in the modern-day NFL, a great defense can only get you so far. The Patriots went 8-0 when scoring more than 24 points. Including the playoffs, they went 4-5 when scoring 24 points or fewer.

Now, without Collins and Van Noy, that defense is likely to get a little worse. (The team will obviously make additions in the draft, but relying on rookies to save the day in a year with little to no offseason work does not seem particularly conducive to success.)

And without the greatest quarterback of all time, the offense is clearly due for a step back as well.

While most pundits, analysts and fans are still forecasting an AFC East title being in the cards for the 2020 Patriots, remember that the Buffalo Bills lost two games to New England last year by a combined total of 13 points. With the Bills adding Stefon Diggs, and with Sean McDermott having gained a critical year of experience, the Bills really ought to be considered favorites to win the division in 2020.

The only reason to favor the Patriots for that crown would be mystique and history -- factors that won't matter one iota when (if?) games actually kick off in the fall.

All of which -- sort of -- brings us to the Gronkowski trade. As was made clear immediately after news broke of the trade, the Patriots had absolutely no leverage. Why did they have no leverage? Why, it's because they have no cap room. Had Gronkowski come out of retirement, his $9.25 million cap hit would have counted against the Patriots' cap. By stating his intention to come out of retirement and play only for Tampa Bay, Gronkowski held all the cards; the Patriots' only other option would have been releasing him and getting nothing in return.

Wasn't the whole benefit of not committing to a 43-year-old and 44-year-old Tom Brady supposed to be the avoidance of such situations? Weren't the Patriots always the team making moves three or four steps in advance, while the rest of the league frantically tried to play catch-up? Wasn't the overarching plan supposed to involve the Patriots saving money on the quarterback and thus being able to spend freely elsewhere on the roster?

Yes, it's still late April, but this team as currently constituted does not at all resemble those brilliantly constructed championship-caliber teams that have dominated the NFL for two decades. And there's not a ton of room left to fix that.

(That it's coming one year after the plan to replace Rob Gronkowski turned out to be no plan at all is something that ought to be considered here as well.)

As for the quarterback position ... what exactly is the master plan? It could be that Jarrett Stidham happens to be a top-15 quarterback in the world ... though the odds would indicate that it's more likely he is not. Brian Hoyer certainly is not. The team will almost certainly draft a quarterback, who will have comparable odds to Stidham at being a top-15 quarterback in the world.

The Patriots -- if they trade away Joe Thuney -- could createe enough space to sign a former MVP in Cam Newton. But doing that would not at all constitute a plan, as Newton's availability came about only through means outside of the Patriots' control.

It could be quickly noted that the Patriots did have a master plan for Brady's successor in Jimmy Garoppolo. But for one, the elevation of Garoppolo to Rightful Heir To The Brady Throne Of Greatness was always hyperbolic. And two, even if Garoppolo was the answer, the Patriots have had two years to come up with a new plan. If it happens to be Stidham, then they're the smartest team in the world. If not, then, well, they're just like any other team

If that all seems like an alarmist view of the situation, well, it mostly is an alarmist view of the situation. But in the relatively shocking afterglow of Brady's departure, the alarms have been oddly absent during an offseason that appears to be like no other from this 20-year Belichick reign of dominance over the NFL.

Perhaps it will merely take some patience to see the master plan take shape. Perhaps it will take a lucky break or two. Or, perhaps that master plan doesn't actually exist. From afar, it looks like a difficult 2020 season lies ahead, before tens of millions of dollars in cap space opens up in 2021.

It would be a fool's endeavor to sit here now and eliminate any and all possibility of Belichick stunning the world this week and salvaging the situation. He's got himself a track record, you know.

But one can't possibly analyze the current situation and surmise that it feels or looks anything like any offseason in Foxboro from the past two decades. With no clear choice for quarterback, no real offseason for onboarding rookies, and no cap space to sign impact veterans, it sure seems like the time is ripe to sound an alarm for the state of the 2020 Patriots.

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

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