Gronk's retirement could impact Packers' draft strategy

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Why should the Packers care that Rob Gronkowski called it quits?

They don’t play the New England Patriots in 2019. Or in 2020 or even 2021.

Unless there’s a Packers-Patriots Super Bowl, they won’t play again until the 2022 season.

Still, Gronkowski’s retirement, which he announced over the weekend, could make things more difficult for the Packers this offseason.

The Packers are now in direct competition with the Patriots for one of the top tight ends in next month's NFL draft. And although Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has two picks -- Nos. 12 and 30 -- before the Patriots are on the clock with the last pick in the first round, New England’s Bill Belichick has plenty of draft ammunition -- 12 picks in all -- to move up and steal one of those tight ends from Green Bay.

What’s more, the top two tight end prospects -- Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson -- both come from the University of Iowa, where the Patriots have strong ties. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz served as Belichick’s offensive line coach with the Cleveland Browns. One of Ferentz’s sons, Brian, worked for Belichick on the Patriots' coaching staff for four seasons before he returned to Iowa. Another son, James, is an offensive lineman for the Patriots.

Without Gronkowski, the Patriots’ current tight ends are: Stephen Anderson, Jacob Hollister, Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse -- a foursome with 71 combined career catches. Gronkowski had 71-plus receptions on his own in a season three times.

With the free-agent market practically dried up, the Patriots will either have to swing a trade for a tight end or use a high draft pick.

Which is where the Packers come in. Although they paid Jimmy Graham’s $5 million roster bonus on March 15, ensuring they would keep him around for 2019, and they re-signed veteran Marcedes Lewis, tight end remains one of their biggest needs heading into the draft. Graham is 32, and Lewis will turn 35 in May. Graham looked far less athletic last season than he did for most of his career, and Lewis was little more than a blocker (he caught only three passes despite playing all 16 games in 2018). Behind them are Robert Tonyan and Evan Baylis. Tonyan has four career catches for 77 yards and a touchdown, while Baylis has played in just one NFL game and did not catch a pass.

ESPN’s Todd McShay had the Packers taking Hockenson at No. 12 in his most recent mock draft.

McShay wrote: “Yes, the Packers re-signed Jimmy Graham, but he is 32 years old and his production has declined. Hockenson combines size, speed and strength at the position, and he would give Aaron Rodgers a real weapon in the passing game.”

Other mock drafts have the Packers taking Fant at No. 12 or even taking one of them at No. 30. Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. also could be a tight end possibility in the late first round or second round.

If the Packers don’t take a tight end with their first pick, they could risk losing another one before their second pick comes up. Belichick, with two picks in the second round and three in the third, could easily move ahead of Green Bay at No. 30.