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3 ways the Patriots can at least try to replace the irreplaceable Rob Gronkowski

New England has to find a way to make Gronkowski’s departure hurt as little as possible.

Rob Gronkowski called it a career Sunday. And now the Patriots are in trouble.

Losing Gronkowski is the biggest blow 2019’s dealt to an already weak New England receiving corps. Only three wide receivers or tight ends who caught a pass last fall are set to return for the upcoming season — Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett, and little-used tight end Jacob Hollister. Without Gronk on board to give Tom Brady gaping windows to throw the ball downfield, all three will see more defensive attention than ever.

Replacing him won’t be easy, or maybe even possible. Even in a diminished state he remained a singular force who could take over games like no other player could.

That leaves head coach Bill Belichick with an unenviable task. New England has already been proactive on the free agent market in an extremely New England way. The Patriots re-signed useful wideout Dorsett (73.3 percent catch rate, 11 yards per reception with Brady) to a one-year deal. They also added Matt LaCosse, Bruce Ellington, and Maurice Harris to the lineup. The four of them combined for 115 catches last season, so a couple of them are either going to have to make an unexpected leap or Brady is going to need some more help.

Unfortunately, this year’s thin free agent receiving corps has been picked over. Adam Humphries was a top target, but New England’s hesitance in contract talks allowed him to sign with the Titans instead. Golden Tate is a Giant. Jared Cook, the best available veteran tight end, flirted with the Patriots before signing with the Saints for more money.

So who is left to fill some of the biggest shoes in the league? There are three avenues the Pats can take — and they’ll need help at both tight and and wide receiver to do so.

No. 1: Draft targets

Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, Iowa

By most accounts, including SB Nation’s own Dan Kadar, Fant and Hockenson will be the first two tight ends off the board. It’s easy to see why. The Hawkeye duo combined upper-tier blocking, elite athleticism (especially in Fant’s case), and proven production in the passing game. They finished first and second in receiving yards for Iowa in 2018, combining for 88 catches, 1,279 receiving yards, and 13 touchdowns.

They also come from a program Belichick has skimmed from in the past. His relationship with Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz has helped push graduates like Cole Croston, Riley McCarron, and Ferentz’s son James to the New England roster in recent years.

The Patriots’ problem this spring may be that both they and Iowa’s tight ends were too good this past season. Neither player is expected to last until New England’s selection at No. 32 in the first round. The Pats can change all that by dipping into a vast resource of assets — they have 12 picks in April, more than any other team, including six of the top 101 — and trading up if they’re truly sold on Fant or Hockenson. If either one slides to the end of the first round, it seems a safe bet they’ll be on their way to Foxborough; the two Hawkeyes are the top two most popular mock draft picks for New England this year.

Irv Smith Jr., Alabama

The Crimson Tide product comes from another pipeline to which Belichick has long turned — though it’s not as though picking a player from Nick Saban’s assembly line in Tuscaloosa is an especially rare or special thing. Smith is following O.J. Howard’s lead into the NFL as an uber-athletic Alabama tight end with first-round aspirations. With a 4.6-second 40-yard dash time and upper-level performances on the bench and in the 20-yard shuttle at the NFL Combine, he’s got the power and athleticism to shine at the next level.

But Smith is no sure thing. He’s only got one season as a full-time starter under his belt in college, and while he put up solid numbers (44 catches, 710 yards, 7 TDs), that may have been a function of a Tua Tagovailoa aerial attack that made every member of the Bama offense look immortal at times.

Still, he’s got NFL bloodlines (his dad played tight end for the Saints and was seemingly inserted into every pack of Upper Deck cards I bought from 1993 to 1997) and is interested in a move to the Northeast:

But he could also be gone by pick 32 — Kadar’s latest mock draft has him getting snapped him by the target-needy Packers at No. 30. If that’s the case, Day 2 candidates like Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger or Stanford’s Kaden Smith could be in play.

Terry McLaurin and Parris Campbell, Ohio State

McLaurin and Campbell have each seen their stock rise in the pre-draft process, turning in eye-catching workout numbers after excellent 2018 seasons with the Buckeyes. Campbell led the team with 90 catches for 1,063 yards and 12 touchdowns before showing out with a 4.31-second 40 time at the combine (tied for the top mark among receivers) and pulling off top-five showings in the long and broad jumps.

McLaurin averaged an absurd 20 yards per catch as a senior and turned heads both at the Senior Bowl and in his pro day workout. He’s gone from a potential late-round steal to possible early Day 2 pick — and the Patriots have six selections to work with those days.

Other early wideout picks who could be in play with New England’s first two selections of this year’s draft include Riley Ridley, N’Keal Harry, Deebo Samuel, and A.J. Brown. But if Belichick spurns the opportunity to make a Day 2 wideout his Waterloo once more, there are a few other less hyped prospects who could fit his needs.

Andy Isabella, Massachusetts, and Hunter Renfrow, Clemson

Scrappy undersized wideouts who were lightly regarded as recruits and still face major questions as they transition to the NFL despite prolific college football careers? That would never work in New England.

If the Patriots are looking for wideout prospects deeper in the the draft, they’ll have their choice of extremely Patriot-looking players. Isabella showed off his burner bonafides with a 4.31 40 at the combine, and waiting long into Day 2 could mean waiting too long on a player who was prolific at UMass — he had 102 catches and 1,698 yards last season. Renfrow wasn’t as impressive, but his history of showing up in big games means his name has been circled in Belichick’s day planner since January 2017.

Also up for inclusion here is West Virginia touchdown machine David Sills V, who would be the latest quarterback-turned-wideout to join the Patriots’ receiving corps.

No. 2: Trade targets

Here’s the toughest part to predict. Belichick’s lack of success drafting a wide receiver has been balanced out by his ability to add impact targets in various different swaps. Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Brandin Cooks all came to New England via trade.

Gronkowski’s retirement opens up the cap space to add an impact veteran this offseason. If Belichick decides to pull the trigger, here are some names who could be logical fits.

Mohamed Sanu, WR, Falcons

Sanu has long been one of the best supporting-cast wide receivers in the NFL — a player who provides a valuable second option, occasional deep threat, and reliable hands on third down. He’s also set to cost the Falcons $7.6 million this fall, which could be an untenable number for a team with only an estimated $4.7 million of cap space in 2019. Trading away Sanu, whose value is mitigated by the presence of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley atop the Atlanta depth chart, would create both immediate and long-term savings thanks to the rookie contract of the player eventually drafted by the Falcons with whichever picks the Pats send south.

The move would give Brady another reliable veteran wideout atop his receiving depth chart and Belichick another Rutgers product he so values. The Edelman-Sanu combination might give New England the league’s top pair of pass-throwing wideouts, too.

John Ross, WR, Bengals

It was only two years ago the draft world was in love with Ross, whose record-setting 4.22-second 40-yard dash prompted Cincinnati to ignore concerns about his college production and consistency and make him the No. 9 pick of the 2017 NFL Draft. In two years as a pro he’s caught just 35 percent of his targets, making 21 receptions on 60 passes thrown his way and generally serving as an idle deep threat in southwestern Ohio.

That lack of impact has reportedly put him on the trading block in Cincinnati, but he could regain his value playing in a more stable passing environment with the Patriots. His ability to stretch the field could create space for Edelman and whomever else winds up on the WR/TE depth chart on intermediate routes, similar to how Josh Gordon’s presence softened up defenses even when he wasn’t a target. Of course, Ross will have to prove himself repeatedly just to earn a whiff of the respect even an inconsistent Gordon got in 2018, but it’s not a massive stretch to see how he could fit in the New England offense.

Nelson Agholor, WR, Eagles

Like Sanu, Agholor is an expensive player on a team strapped for cap space. The fifth-year option on his rookie contract is set to pay him more than $9 million in 2019. Unlike Sanu, Agholor has yet to be a consistent receiving threat — though his 2017 breakout prevented him from becoming a first-round bust. He’s recorded 126 catches, 1,504 yards, and 12 touchdowns over the past two seasons to emerge as a versatile deep threat.

The Eagles have shed enough salary to afford Agholor’s expensive fifth year, but keeping him is no longer a top priority after the trade that reunited DeSean Jackson and the City of Brotherly Love earlier this offseason. Philadelphia could ship him off in 2019 rather than let him leave with no return other than a potential compensatory 2021 draft pick next winter. It’s not like these two teams are opposed to doing business, either — general manager Howie Roseman already took New England’s fifth-round pick in the Michael Bennett trade earlier this year.

Cameron Brate, TE, Buccaneers

Tampa Bay signed Brate to a six-year, $40.8 million contract extension last March — a kinda strange twist after drafting Alabama tight end Howard less than a year earlier. While the Bucs’ plan may have been to play the two together as dual-threats like New England had with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Brate has mostly been shunted to a supporting role. He had just 30 catches and 289 yards — although with six touchdowns — while making only two starts in 2018.

New head coach Bruce Arians may have more involved plans for Brate, or he may want a fresh start and some extra cap space currently tied up over the final five years and $33.8 million on the Harvard product’s deal. Brate isn’t a Gronkowski replacement up the seam, but he’s a valuable red zone target with 20 touchdowns over the past three seasons — nearly 15 percent of his catches. The Buccaneers backup fills a need in New England. The question is whether Arians is interested in parting with him.

Free agent help lightning round

The Patriots have roughly $17 million left to spend this spring, but few big-name targets available to spend that money on. The tight end market is relatively barren, with decent, unexciting pieces (Dion Sims, Lance Kendricks), former second-round picks who never lived up to the hype (Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Maxx Williams), and guys who were once Patriots (Matt Lengel, A.J. Derby) shrugging their way across a shallow pool of talent.

There are a few more interesting names at wideout, though New England’s recent efforts to bring less-wanted veteran help backfired horribly when Eric Decker, Jordan Matthews, and Kenny Britt were all released before the 2018 season began. The team’s effort to bring young reclamation projects into the fold didn’t pan out either, with Corey Coleman and Amara Darboh each earning their releases before playing a single game with the team.

That makes it easy to understand why Belichick would be reticent to dive into a receiver market filled with well-known but flawed names. Demaryius Thomas’ level of play dropped significantly in 2018 before he tore his Achilles. Pierre Garcon will be 33 this year and missed 16 total games over the last two seasons. Ryan Grant had the opportunity to play with Andrew Luck and allow T.Y. Hilton to relieve some of the defensive pressure he faced, but he failed to match his solid 2017 campaign in Washington.

Jermaine Kearse is coming off his worst non-rookie season as a pro. Jordy Nelson finished 2018 on a high note (38 catches, 386 yards in his final five games), but is also going to be 34 in 2019. Kelvin Benjamin has the strongest combination of talent and youth of anyone on this list. He’s also seems like the kind of guy Belichick would cut after two practices.

Bringing back Chris Hogan would help, though he’s still trying to find a way to recapture his deep threat magic from 2016 and was rendered entirely anonymous in multiple games last fall. Other familiar faces like Brandon LaFell and Michael Floyd could also wind up back on the team’s list. No matter who the club picks at this stage, it appears diving into free agency is the least exciting option for the Patriots.

Losing Gronkowski doesn’t just leave a hole in New England’s tight end depth chart. It forces the Patriots to replace the guy who created looser coverage for the rest of his teammates downfield and find a new security blanket for Brady when he needs to pull a game-changing clutch play out of his hat.

While versatile players like James White and Rex Burkhead can take on some of the burden in the passing game and Sony Michel looks like the team’s most potent lead runner since Corey Dillon, there’s plenty of work still to be done — even if Gordon is cleared for a return to the field.

There’s no one solution to this problem. In 2019, the Patriots have three avenues to begin chipping away at the biggest possible non-Belichick, non-Brady loss on the roster. Even if they choose correctly, we may not know until 2020 — or later.