Commentary

The Patriots' talent question

Does New England lack elite talent to the degree so many people believe they do?

Originally Published: November 21, 2011
By Chris Sprow | ESPN Insider

Rob GronkowskiTodd Kirkland/Icon SMIShaky medicals allowed Rob Gronkowski to fall to New England.

Rob Gronkowski is often referenced as an example of why the New England Patriots draft the way they do. At a hair under 6-foot-7, Gronkowski is 265 pounds, can run the 40 in the 4.64 range, and has hands that are nearly as long as the width of a medium pizza. The Patriots landed him with the No. 42 pick in the 2010 draft, and his presence, along with that of Aaron Hernandez -- drafted 71 picks later -- has helped transform the New England offense.

Talent can be found late. When you ask scouts the most obvious case of game-changing, elite talent on the Patriots' roster right now, outside of quarterback, most point to Gronkowski. "Not close for me," says one. "And he's 22." There is nothing "system" about Gronkowski -- put him on any team, and their passing offense is better. And this is New England, seeing value where others didn't.

But that's not really true.

Everybody knew about Gronkowski. Maybe too much. They knew he was an exceptional talent but didn't play his entire junior season at Arizona. They knew that in 2009, surgeons had to shave down a disk in his neck so it wouldn't interfere with his spinal cord. They'd heard the rumors that he had the same condition that ended Michael Irvin's career and had listened to Gronkowski's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, work hard to correctly refute those rumors. But New England drafted him anyway.

In the same way the draft has, for years, created enormous risk-reward propositions for teams that draft high, in landing their most elite talent not named Tom Brady, the Patriots assumed great risk. If Gronkowski took a head shot in Week 2 of last season and was carted off the field while the announcers spoke in grave terms about his medical history, pundits and fans would have scolded them: "They should have known! The 42nd pick on a guy who had spine surgery?"

This season, there's been a lot of talk surrounding New England's apparent lack of talent.

"Belichick the general manager has let down Belichick the coach. The Patriots simply don't have enough talent to beat the elite teams in this league," Greg Bedard wrote recently.

And it's a common narrative: Belichick, many claim, has let his addiction to system players who can understand his schemes go too far; obsessing over draft value, he trades down and never gets elite talent; he's simply arrogant and would rather win with untalented disciples than gifted athletes who can dominate in any system; he wants to feed the narrative that he's football Gepetto, breathing life into the inanimate; it's hardly a surprise that the great singular talent of recent years they've acquired, Randy Moss, was practically a gift.

So is it all true?

The prosecution's case might look like this: