Jeff Howe, the Athletic
If it were a no-brainer to draft Rob Gronkowski, his talent would have made him a top-five pick, even in the absolutely loaded 2010 class.
But Gronk was coming off major back surgery, which headlined his extensive injury history, and the 20-year-old at the time already built up a well-known reputation as a party animal during his days at the University of Arizona. His on-field tape was incredible, but NFL teams still had to make significant projections due to the simplicity of the Wildcats’ offense.
And then there were the pre-draft meetings. No doubt, Gronk was as likable as they come, but those meetings still confirmed some of the concerns that teams were already fighting through.
So he tumbled to the second round, and Bill Belichick made a strategic trade to leapfrog the Ravens and steal Gronkowski at No. 42. Gronk rewarded the Patriots with a near-certain Hall of Fame career that was highlighted by three Super Bowl victories, four First-Team All-Pro selections and five Pro Bowls.
It all happened 10 years ago this month: April 23, 2010.
As a sophomore at Arizona in 2008, Gronkowski caught 47 passes for 672 yards and a team-high 10 touchdowns despite missing the first three games with an injury. He then missed the entire 2009 season due to back surgery and declared early for the 2010 draft.
To complicate matters somewhat, the Patriots were in a transitional phase in the front office. Scott Pioli left to become the Chiefs general manager in January 2009, but that was merely the most notable of several departures. Former scout Jim Nagy, now the Senior Bowl director, joined Pioli in 2009 as well.
Area scout Adam Peters handled the west coast in 2008 but joined the Broncos in 2009, causing the Patriots to use more of an all-hands-on-deck approach with Gronkowski and that side of the country during the 2009 season and 2010 draft process. Larry Cook and Frantzy Jourdain handled area scouting duties with national scout Monti Ossenfort and director of college scouting Jon Robinson taking lead roles in draft prep for Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio.
Still, the Patriots’ front office in 2010 was overflowing with talent. Robinson is now the Titans general manager, and former assistant director of pro personnel Bob Quinn is now the Lions GM with former national scout Kyle O’Brien as his No. 2. Former director of pro personnel Jason Licht is now the Buccaneers GM. Ossenfort is now the Patriots’ director of college scouting and viewed as a likely general manager candidate or successor to Caserio. Former scouts DuJuan Daniels (Raiders), Patrick Stewart (Eagles), James Liipfert (Texans) and Jourdain (Broncos) have since taken bigger roles with other teams.
Former Patriots tight ends coach Brian Ferentz, now the Iowa offensive coordinator : The scouting staff there, if it wasn’t the best in 2010, it was really strong, really good. By the time (the Gronk scouting reports) had gotten to us (on the coaching side), the legwork had pretty much been done. The coaches, at least in New England, always felt like by the time you got a list, those were guys – the field had been narrowed.
Robinson : There were a lot of eyes on that player, as there obviously are every year, so there were plenty of evaluations as far as how he’d fit with New England.
Daniels : We had some transition at that time. We were short on some bodies a little bit that year. … We crosscheck everybody, so there are several sets of eyes on every player in the draft. If there are discrepancies in grades, we’ll watch him as a group and guys can say their piece on what they think about the player.
Ferentz : So my first exposure to Rob was doing some evaluations on him. I was familiar with his name because when he was at Arizona, they played Iowa twice, a home and home. My father (Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz) mentioned in a phone conversation what a good player he was.
The 2010 draft class was strong at tight end, also including Jermaine Gresham, Ed Dickson, Tony Moeaki, Jimmy Graham, Aaron Hernandez, Dennis Pitta, Clay Harbor, Michael Hoomanawanui and Andrew Quarless.
Daniels : There were a lot of good tight ends in that class. And if you picked the wrong guy and didn’t evaluate it correctly, phew.
Ferentz : I just saw the tape. One thing that popped on both those guys (Gronkowski and Hernandez) that we did end up drafting, when you evaluate them, they were clearly the best in that draft. The third best guy – I’m not sure he was rated that highly, but the skill set – the three best guys were those two and Jimmy Graham, who was a one-year football player. When you think of those three guys coming out of the same draft, it’s really remarkable. You’re just blown away by the raw athletic ability on tape. The raw athletic ability on tape is very jarring. My grandmother could tell you that you guys should think about drafting (Gronkowski), just by the way he was able to move around and do things.
Robinson : He was a player that obviously had a pretty good grade from everyone who looked at him.
Ferentz : The second part of the evaluation, this is where I give a lot of credit to the scouting staff and to coach Belichick. I think it’s one of his strengths. It’s very difficult to project (Gronkowski) doing the things that we were going to need a tight end to do. He played in an air-raid based offense. He was never attached to the formation. He was never in line. It’s a great offense. I have a tremendous amount of respect for it because of its simplicity. It’s not a complicated offense. He didn’t line up in a lot of different spots. He didn’t do a lot of different things. And he didn’t run a lot of different routes. He never blocked in line. If he was blocking, he was out on the perimeter blocking for bubbles or working as a receiver in the interior run game, which is a lot different than putting your hand in the ground. And he was never in a three-point stance. So that’s tough. Certainly, I wish I could sit here and take credit for it, but shoot, I didn’t know up from down back then, and I still don’t. So the scouting staff had done a great job of getting past some of those things. You have to see things where perhaps others can’t, and that’s where the projections come in. I don’t think anybody does that better than Bill Belichick.
Robinson : He was a guy I really liked personally for our football team. We talked to him at the combine. I would say the first impression there wasn’t great. You could tell he was a fun-loving guy. But in 15 minutes (during the official interview), it was hard to gauge how much he loved football. We went back and met again. I put together some clips of him going against Patrick Chung (when Gronkowski caught 12 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown against Oregon), who was on our team at the time at the Patriots. We sat down and watched him. That’s when we decided we needed to spend more time with him because of his skill set.
Daniels : The year he came out, I was actually a combine leader, and I had tight ends and quarterbacks. So Rob was in my group. That was a big involvement I had with him from the start as far as interacting with him during the combine and things like that. During that entire week, that deals with the medicals, the on-field stuff, the psych testing, the interviews. You pretty much are responsible for running that group of players getting from Point A to B and interacting with them all week in every facet of the combine. First of all, he’s huge. I’m like, man, this kid. I didn’t scout him at Arizona. His personality obviously stands out right away. Just a really good guy, fun to be around but focused. You could see all the guys in his group just enjoyed being around him, and he had just a great energy about him.
Robinson : We brought him in for a pre-draft (visit). He was his fun-loving self again.
Ferentz : There were some things on his visit, I wouldn’t call them concerning, but it was hard to say this guy is like a serious guy. It was really difficult because of the culture we had. The 2010 draft, you’ve got to put that in the context of the 2009 season, and that was a real turning point for the franchise. In 2009, we blew everything up because it was terrible. The biggest problem from my vantage point, and I was hardly a decision-maker, we had a culture problem. We had lost what made us good. And 2010 was very much about resetting that. That’s where you put that (Gronkowski) visit into context.
Robinson : I can remember it like it was yesterday. He was sitting across from me. We’re trying to talk about football. I’m trying to get to know him a little better, make my notes on him. I said, “What do you like to do besides football?” A lot of guys say different things. Most of them play video games, or watch movies or read books. He’s like, “I like to watch cartoons.” I’m like, OK. I said, “What do you like to watch?” He goes, “SpongeBob.” And then the Gronk laugh. I’m like, you’ve got to be kidding me. I’m bringing this guy up to Bill every other day, and he’s telling me he likes to watch SpongeBob. I’m (thinking), I’ve got no chance, Rob, you’ve got to help me out here.
Ferentz : There are a lot of moments like that with Rob. OK, here this guy comes in and falls asleep in the waiting room outside (director of scouting administration) Nancy Meier’s office. She goes in there, and he’s lying on the ground. He’s got his suit jacket folded up like a pillow. It’s not like he fell asleep. He laid down and took a nap. Then he comes in wearing this suit. It had to be a $1,500 suit that his agent got him. It’s a suit that Drew Rosenhaus would be wearing. And then he had like a size-17 Dr. Martens. He was a piece of work. He was good in our visit, but he was definitely young. He definitely wasn’t mature. He was definitely goofy. His whole world, he just didn’t have a lot of perspective, let me put it to you that way. But the one thing that came shining through — he was a good kid. He was a good person. He had a good head on his shoulders. He had good values.
Daniels : Just being around him, you’d think this guy is this big goofball, but there is a serious side to the guy, too. Everybody wants to talk about the goofy stories. But when it’s time to work, I just remember the guy being locked in and focused. Being a combine leader, you get asked questions as a young scout, “What was this guy like? Was he on time? Is he accountable? Is he a goofball? Is this guy going to be able to put all the partying behind him and really be a pro?” I remember being like, “I think this guy is a pro.” He knows when to turn it on and turn it off, and he’s locked in and he loves football.
Ferentz : This is unbelievable. In his visit, at that time, I’m not (officially) the tight end coach (yet). I’m just along for the ride. In the goodness of (former offensive coordinator) Bill O’Brien’s heart, he includes me in the meeting with Rob when we have him in New England. We were going to sit down and talk football and all those good things. So it was Bill O’Brien, (former wide receivers coach) Chad O’Shea and myself. Bill O’Brien asked Rob, “Can you talk about a time you faced some adversity in your life?” Keep in mind, this guy is coming off major back surgery and missed an entire season of football and like half the year before (in 2008). It seems like a major deal to me at least. And he probably would have been a first-round pick had he not been hurt for two years. Me, I would classify that as adversity. Rob goes, “Yeah, sure, I can talk about that. When I was in high school, I was playing baseball and had a terrible slump. I went like four games without a home run.” Not without a hit – without a home run. I’m like, this guy. Probably the same type of moment Jon Robinson had (with the SpongeBob story). The only difference is I’m not in a position to influence or suggest anything, so it doesn’t matter. I’m just sitting there with my thoughts. But that’s who he is. Knowing him much better now, I think that’s an insight into the best part of who he is. He doesn’t get bogged down. Missing the better part of a year and a half would destroy most people, and their confidence and their ability to go back out on the field and let it rip. That’s not who he is though, and that’s not who he ever was throughout his career.
Robinson : He was a very likable guy. He wasn’t a player that we disliked. It was, is he going to come in here and buy into the way we’re going to do things? There were a lot of hurdles we had to be comfortable with. At the end of the day, that was Bill’s determination, and Nick. They’re the ones who have the final say on those players that are picked. I’m sure Bill talked to enough people and was comfortable enough (with Gronkowski). Somehow, the question got answered that the guy loves football, and he wants to be really good at what he does.
Ferentz : Coach Belichick and the scouting staff did a great job of putting it in perspective of, listen, this is a young kid. Let’s worry about what he could be, not what he is. Let’s take into account that he is going to grow, mature, develop physically, socially, mentally, emotionally, all of the above. The initial visits left something to be desired. His best qualities – it’s like any interaction you’ve ever had with Rob – always find a way to shine through. It’s why he’s a charismatic guy. He can’t help it. He’s a terrible poker player. He can’t lie. He can’t deceive. One thing you learn from day one (with the Patriots) is it’s not about what somebody is doing – it’s what they can do. With Rob, yeah, there was a leap of faith. But then you go through the draft process and get to know him, you’re around him a little bit, you bring him in. He is who he is. That’s not an act. That’s not a show. I do think he is a character, and I do think he knows he’s a character. I always say that Rob is dumb like a fox. He plays up certain aspects of his personality for effect, but it’s not an act. It’s genuine. It’s who he is. But he is much smarter than he leads on. When you’re around him for an extended period of time, you get a sense of that.
The Patriots entered the first round of the 2010 draft with the No. 22 pick but traded back twice. First, just after the Bengals took Gresham as the first tight end off the board, the Patriots moved back to No. 24 and added the fourth-round selection they ultimately used on Hernandez. Then, they slid to No. 27, where they drafted Devin McCourty.
Robinson : We had Devin circled up pretty good there. McCourty was the guy. We felt like we could get him. I don’t know what Plan B was if he had not been there (at No. 27).
Hindsight shows Gronkowski should have been taken much higher, but this was a talented draft class at tight end and other positions. Gronk simply had more question marks than other prospects.
Nagy : I remember our college director (with the Chiefs) at the time, Phil Emery, (Gronkowski) was Phil’s favorite guy in the draft. He had a huge grade on Gronk. We had him way up high on the board for a while. I can’t remember what the medical grade came out to be. I think that probably affected where he ended up on the board. But just the player evaluation, I remember Phil really, really liking him. I remember the talks of him sitting out that year, the hot tub parties in Tucson, how he was spending his time. Our (Dexter) McCluster pick (at No. 36), we were just trying to find a slot that mirrored what we had in New England all those years with Troy Brown and then (Wes) Welker.
Ferentz : There was concern that this guy liked to have a good time. But there’s a reason. His head coach liked to have a good time. (Former Arizona coach) Mike Stoops is a phenomenal coach, really good, but that whole program was wild from the top to the bottom. I remember asking Rob one time about how he chose his school. It was simple for him. He went down there, got one look at the women and the nightlife, and that’s where he was going. It seems crazy, right? It flies in the face of anything that you would think about an accomplished player. I mean, imagine Tom Brady giving that answer. There’s no doubt in my mind Rob Gronkowski is the greatest to ever play that position.
Daniels : Of course there were concerns, especially when you’re talking about a back (surgery). Let’s be honest, if the guy was healthy, would we have gotten him there (in the second round)? I doubt it. It’s kind of one of those things where I’m sure teams, you hear about it and they failed him (medically).
The Patriots were next set to draft at No. 44, but they also knew the Ravens, who were there at No. 43, were in the tight end market. So the Pats traded a sixth-round pick to the Raiders to leapfrog the Ravens and move to No. 42. The Ravens have consistently publicly denied they were going to draft Gronkowski with the 43rd pick, but it’s fair to be suspect of those claims because they didn’t want to be known as the team that lost Gronk to the Patriots. Then, the Ravens took Dickson in the third round and Pitta in the fourth.
Robinson : I think there was some thought the Ravens might take Rob there, and you don’t want to get busted on the pick. So we were able to craft a trade there with Oakland to jump up two spots to secure the player when you have a gut feeling. That’s kind of how it works in the draft. I obviously learned a ton from Bill, and that’s how I try to operate on draft day. You try to gather as much information as possible now that I’m picking players. You rely on your instinct some, too, and your gut feel. That was probably the gut feel there in why we moved.
Daniels : The Ravens were in the tight end market as well. They took Ed Dickson, then they also took Pitta. So that was a great move by coach Belichick to go get his guy. Because who knows? He could have been a Raven. You have to know what your needs are. With the Patriots, our pro department always did a great job with our needs and understanding what every team may do that is ahead of us and who they’re targeting. That’s one thing that gets overlooked in a lot of organizations – the involvement of their pro departments assessing other teams’ needs. Assessing needs, that’s huge, trust me.
Robinson : He was obviously deserving to go in the first round. For whatever reason, he fell to us there in the second. At that point, we felt the skill set was worth taking the guy. If it doesn’t work out, it’s going to be for a lot of factors, but the ability was certainly there.
Ferentz : I found out we drafted Rob by seeing it on TV. And I remember when we took him, it was a comedy show. He’s got the helmet on, and he’s doing one-on-one (interviews) with his brothers. I’m like, oh man, knowing everything I knew about him up until that point and then watching that, and just thinking to myself like, “Ohhhh, I don’t know, guys. I don’t know. I don’t know if this one’s going to work.”
Daniels : Everybody remembers as soon as the guy gets drafted, the whole family is on stage in a mosh pit. The call comes in, “Hey, get his ass off the stage.” Of course, we all laughed about it, but we were like, oh boy, here we go. Let’s hope we’re right. We think we’re right.
Robinson : I think there were some chuckles. I don’t know that Bill was belly laughing there, but I think he had that kind of grin that he has when something kind of tickles him. You know the look I’m talking about. I think he had that look. It was after Mr. Kraft had talked to him and Bill had talked to him, then we moved on. We were ready to keep attacking the draft. It was a cool moment of him jumping around. We all got a chuckle out of it.
The 2010 draft class played a major role in the Patriots’ transition into the second phase of the dynasty. But while McCourty had an immediate impact as a Pro Bowl cornerback during his rookie season, Gronk’s assimilation was a bit more gradual. The Patriots surely recognized his talent, work ethic and drive for greatness, but he faced a steep learning curve.
Ferentz : His football knowledge when he came to us was not outstanding, but it was a product of his environment. It’s not a knock on those guys (at Arizona). They were winning games and doing a good job. But we were going to need him to do a lot more than what he was doing. Rob learns extremely well. The difference is Aaron (Hernandez) had come out of a place where he was a feature in (Florida’s) offense, and he had a lot of roles because they were trying to get him the football. He had more football experience, like a bigger knowledge base, so he was able to catch onto some things faster because he had been asked to do more in the past. For Rob, two things were going on from the start. One, it would be like getting dropped into the middle of China and having to learn Chinese just to function. And two, imagine being dropped into China, not being able to speak the regional dialect and then having to go to work every day to do a job you’ve never done before. That’s what Rob was up against. For Aaron, it’s like he was dropped in there, and he had already done the job but just had to learn the language. So that was difficult for Rob. He was learning how to be a part of a bigger system, and he was learning how to put his hand in the ground, play in line, block, run routes that he had never run before from areas that he’d never worked. Now, he’s such a gifted football player that eventually it all got really good and we were able to erase some things early.
Daniels : The physical talent jumped out immediately. People respect you a lot of times off your ability. If you can play, you’re going to get your respect. If you’re a worker, you’re going to get your respect. Right away, you saw this guy blocks. This guy can go in the red zone, his catch radius. You could see the guys around him were like, man, we’ve got somebody here. The talent immediately showed.
Ferentz : The guy was an extremely hard worker. I mean, god, what a hard worker. It’s an interesting thing, those two guys (Gronkowski and Hernandez, who was convicted of the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd before committing suicide in prison). One of them, we’re writing articles about and celebrating. The other guy, rightfully so, has been erased from history. It’s always an interesting thing for me when you talk about them, especially for me in my business, you prefer not to be associated with him. But those two guys loved playing football, and they worked like crazy. It was really a good mix early. They complemented each other well. It wasn’t until later some of the problems were there and started manifesting themselves in the locker room and you were trying to deal with it. But early, that wasn’t going on. They were a good pair. They worked really hard. They were eager.
Robinson : You could see his talent on the field. I think he assimilated himself pretty quickly with his teammates. Obviously, I think we got firsthand exposure to how hard of a worker he was and how much he really did love football. You could see him in the building and meeting rooms. He obviously brought a fun side of life to the building, not that he was always walking down the hallways joking or anything. He was a guy who liked to have a good time, but he also liked to immerse himself and be the best that he could.
Gronkowski had 14 receptions for 148 yards and three touchdowns in a limited role through eight games as a rookie in 2010, but he seized an opportunity when Hernandez was benched against the Steelers. Gronkowski scored three touchdowns in a 39-26 win, breaking out for 28 catches, 398 yards and seven touchdowns over his final eight regular season games. He remained a game-day staple for the better part of the decade.
Ferentz : He scored a touchdown in his first game (against the Bengals) down on the goal line. He wasn’t playing a lot of snaps, but he was part of the goal-line package. Early in the year, Alge (Crumpler) was the No. 1 tight end, and Aaron was the No. 2 but played in a lot in sub personnel and was playing a lot from jump street. Then Aaron got dinged up, and we had some incidents around that Cleveland game (a 34-14 loss in Week 9). That’s when some things started kind of going off the rails for him, so we benched him. He was a healthy scratch when we went to Pittsburgh (in Week 10). We didn’t even take him on the trip. We just told him he was done for a week. Just had enough of it. So Rob was our guy. Alge started, but we had to play Rob a lot. We were nervous as hell about it. That week was like sitting down every day with Rob, going through everything. What we learned about him that night was we were crazy for not playing him more because he’s just exceptional. I don’t know how else to describe it. We kind of knew that, but it forced us (to play him more). We’re dumb. We’re creatures of comfort and habit. But once he got out there on the field, there was no turning back. He took off from there.