Worth a Chance for Dallas?

The Dallas Cowboys are playing their draft plans as close to the vest this season as they have in years.

Conventional logic suggests the team should be loading up on offensive linemen, safeties and cornerbacks, with the chance of a kicker being thrown in.

But according to multiple sources, the Cowboys are spending a lot of time studying the tape and medical records of Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski.

At first glance, it makes little sense. Starter Jason Witten is on the short list of the top tight ends in football. Backup Martellus Bennett has tantalized coaches (for the Cowboys and their opponents) with his enormous frame, athletic ability and potential. Third-stringer John Phillips — an afterthought at the beginning of the 2009 season — came on late in the season, and received a lot of the snaps Bennett previously received when the Cowboys went to a two-tight end set.

But keep in mind, there was interest last year in Bennett by other teams; Cincinnati offered a draft pick for him (somewhere between a first-round pick and a third-rounder, depending on the source). Now there is speculation that if a team makes a legitimate offer again for Bennett, the Cowboys might accept, in an effort to acquire additional draft picks. If they do choose to replace Bennett in favor of another tight end, Gronkowski is an impressive prospect who would arrive with a huge question mark after missing the entire 2009 season following back surgery.

Some have referred to the 6-foot-6, 264-pound Gronkowski as "a poor man's Jason Witten." Like the Dallas Pro Bowler, Gronkowski has excellent size, long arms and excellent (and huge) hands. He's not exceedingly fast, but has enough speed to get open, and is strong and tough when running after the catch. He also is an underrated blocker with the strength and work ethic to improve.

But his back injury has some teams scared off. Gronkowski missed the entire 2009 season, and a quarter of the season before. Gronkowski said teams understandably are asking about it, but he said the injury is a non-issue.

"It was a microdisectomy," he said. "Basically, the doctor shaves off the disc that's sticking out on to your spinal cord. It's a really (minimally) invasive surgery. It's a real easy process, but it takes about three to five months (to recover). It's been more than five months, but I'm ready to go.

"I'm definitely facing some (questions about his back), but handling it well. I'm going to be 100 percent, because I've been cleared by many doctors. There really are no issues about my back any more."

So while he is optimistic about recovering fully from his surgery and being a productive NFL player, some were surprised that he chose to leave school a year early, considering he didn't play in 2009.

"It was definitely a tough decision," he said. "Leaving the Arizona family was hard; it was definitely a family there — great atmosphere, great football. I always wanted to play in the NFL. It was always a dream of mine and I wanted to fulfill my dream. When I have an opportunity, I step on board. I don't like waiting around.

"Going into my junior year, I definitely felt I was going to be ready. That was my goal. That's why I chose to go to Arizona University, because I knew Arizona University was going to be a place to get me to the next level."

In the two seasons in which he played, 2007 and 2008, the versatile Gronkowski was used in a number of ways, including as a blocking tight end next to the tackle, and also split out as a receiver, sometimes on the outside and sometimes in the slot. In two seasons, he caught 75 passes for 1,197 yards and 16 touchdowns, including 10 in 2008.

Ironically, both of the top two tight end prospects in this year's draft missed the 2009 season because of injuries. Oklahoma's Jermaine Greshman is widely considered the draft's top tight end prospect, but Gronkowski believes he belongs atop the list of players at the position.

"I would say I'm the top tight end, because I bring the whole package," Gronkowski said. "I'm ready to take on the big D-ends. I'm ready to go out there and catch some passes.

"I believe I have great hands. I'll catch anything in my path."

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