Gronkowski wasn’t optimistic.

Oakland Raiders inside linebacker Ben Heeney (51) celebrates after a sack against the Kansas City Chiefs during the second quarter at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

With a chance to address the middle linebacker spot with a battle-tested field general, McKenzie signed a bargain-bin free agent in Curtis Lofton, who came off a poor season with the New Orleans Saints. Opposing quarterbacks constantly exposed the eighth-year veteran in space. Lofton also struggled to stop the run as a downhill defender. He failed to finish the season as a starter.

McKenzie didn’t have a solid plan B behind Lofton. He drafted Ben Heeney in the fifth round of the 2015 draft, but the Kansas linebacker needed time to develop into a starting-caliber player, and it showed during the 2016 preseason. Heeney flashed as a preseason star during his rookie year, but he faltered in space and missed several tackles during exhibition play in 2016. He lost his green-dot responsibilities before the first game of the season.

However, McKenzie’s decision to sign inside linebacker Perry Riley after Week 4 of the previous season ranks as the best acquisition he’s made at the position during his tenure as general manager. The seventh-year veteran started 11 games.

The one thing I will say is, if we don’t exercise that option, we will always keep the door open on all of our players. But in my mind, regardless if Adrian is here or not here next year — because of whatever happens — he will always be a Minnesota Viking. If he’s fortunate enough to go in the Hall of Fame, and fortunate enough to go in the [Vikings] Ring of Honor, in my mind, he’s a Minnesota Viking.”

Asked whether Goodell could return to Foxborough any time soon after the Deflategate fallout, Gronkowski wasn’t optimistic.

In 2016, he brought in only 586 yards and one touchdown for the Eli Manning-led Giants offense. When reviewing that type of change in productivity, it’s seems to be in the Panthers’ best interests to avoid signing him to a deal.

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