New England Patriots: Is Tony Gonzalez the Perfect 2014 Rob Gronkowski Fill-in?

Bringing Gonzalez on Board Would Greatly Ease Gronkowski's Return from Injury

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski will miss the remainder of the 2013 season with a brutal knee injury that could also impact his preparedness or full availability in 2014.

The team is singularly focused on finishing their current season on a positive note. They sit at 10-4 and are poised for the playoffs despite the loss of their star.

If the Patriots have any doubts about Gronkowski's readiness for 2014, there may be a perfect replacement they can pursue. Consider this the start of the bandwagon to bring veteran and future Hall-of-Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez aboard next season.

The 24-year-old Gronkowski is about as irreplaceable as a player can get in the NFL. From his superior blocking to his excellent production in the receiving game, he is a beast in the truest sense of the word.

A second round pick out of the University of Arizona in 2010, he's dominated since the start of his career. After a combined 2,663 receiving yards and 38 touchdowns in his first three seasons, he had another 592 yards and four scores this year in seven games before suffering his injury. Needless to say, if he missed any part or was limited in 2014, the Patriots would have an enormous hole to fill. That's where Gonzalez could come in.

The 37-year-old, who is currently playing for the Atlanta Falcons, and is in his 17th NFL season, is just the type of weapon that could soften the blow of an absentee Gronkowski. However, there are three questions that would need to be answered to determine the viability of such a move.

Would he want to come to New England? Nobody can say for sure at this point but Gonzalez will be a free agent after this season and must be itching for a chance to get a Super Bowl before he finishes his illustrious career.

He indicated he was on the verge of retiring last year but he came back and rejoined the Falcons in an attempt at one more shot at a championship run. Instead, the team is mired in a miserable season, going 4-10 to date, and is in the running for a top pick in next year's draft.

According to NFL.com's Chris Wesseling, the tight end is still talking like he may retire after this season. While it may be hard to envision him returning to a struggling team like the Falcons, exploring a move to the playoff-ready Patriots is a much easier scenario to imagine. Head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady represent two of the best ever, and New England has never won fewer than nine games in a season during their tenure, and they have made the playoffs in nine of the past 10 years.

Can he still be productive? Gonzalez is ancient by NFL terms but you would never know it with the way he still piles up stats. In 14 games this season, he has accumulated 71 receptions, 740 yards and seven touchdowns. This brings his career totals to 1,313 catches, 15,008 yards and 110 scores.

He is a physical specimen who has showed little sign of slowing down over the years. Having played basketball in addition to football when in college at California, the 247-pounder has maintained that same impressive athleticism into the twilight of his professional career.

Like Gronkowski, he is a strong blocker who presents match-up problems for defenders because of his quickness and precise route running. Remarkably, his production looks relatively unchanged from the first few years of his career until now.

Would he be a good fit? Gonzalez will be an unrestricted free agent after this season according to Sportrac.com. At this point in his career, money may not be the primary factor in determining if he will continue to play, but he isn't going to play for the minimum either. He is making $5.25 million this season, and should reasonably expect to make something at least in the same neighborhood next year if he decided to strap on the pads for an 18th season.

With the timeline of Gronkowski very much up in the air, such a salary might seem high for a player who could end up being a second tight end. But in addition to providing valuable insurance in the worst of scenarios, Gonzalez could also give the team two productive tight ends. This would be similar to the previous three seasons when Aaron Hernandez was paired with Gronkowski.

Gonzalez might also be worth the salary because his reputation as a worker, leader and teammate are beyond reproach. He's exactly the type of player New England has coveted over the years, blending such veterans with younger players into a cohesive unit that matches up with any other organization in the league.

Conclusion: For now, the emphasis will be on finishing this season and seeing how far the team can go. However, the future is never far off, and the Patriots have to be worried about the Gronkowski situation. It's not often that such a good solution can be found to such a potentially bad problem, and signing Gonzalez for 2014 would represent just that.

In addition to the Yahoo Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written extensively for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports (particularly the Boston Red Sox and the New England Patriots). He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.

You can also follow Andrew on Twitter: @HistorianAndrew.

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