What if Gronk hit the market in '14?

As teams aim to sign -- or re-sign -- a free agent, they often cultivate their offers by studying players of comparable value and their respective deals.

In the case of Saints tight end Jimmy Graham -- the top free agent regardless of position this offseason -- there's little in the way of comparable talents.

Except, of course, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Graham could well receive a deal that makes him the highest-paid tight end in NFL history, surpassing the deal signed by Gronkowski last offseason.

Gronkowski's deal was added to the two years remaining that he was already under contract for from his rookie deal, with total payments (including his rookie deal) at eight years and $55.2 million.

When Gronkowski is healthy, his production at least measures up to a player being paid $6.9 million per season, if not far more. His 2011 season was historic and arguably the greatest ever for a tight end.

Graham has been remarkable as well, stockpiling touchdowns and receptions in advance of his big payday.

The thought of Graham hitting free agency (or at least receiving the franchise tag) made us wonder how Gronkowski would be valued if the team had not signed him to an extension. His rookie deal would be over, and just like Graham, Gronk would be in the free-agent class for this offseason.

When healthy, one can argue that Gronkowski's overall game -- blocking included -- exceeds Graham. Graham is the superior athlete, but he's hardly a body-mover as a blocker. Gronkowski, conversely, has been a dominant blocker in the past.

But while Graham has avoided major injuries, Gronkowski has not. He's currently recovering from ACL surgery and had numerous offseason surgeries in 2013.

Health is a major factor that teams consider in free agency, and Gronkowski is no exception.

Given that Gronkowski signed his long-term deal last summer, the debate over which player would earn more on the open market is moot. But if Graham cashes in on a massive new contract and Gronkowski returns to health and replicates his previous production next season, we might once again find ourselves looking back on the Patriots' decision to sign him early (at an affordable rate) as one of the shrewder moves in recent memory.