NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
Even recognizing the importance of players such as nose tackle Vince Wilfork, safety Devin McCourty, linebacker Jerod Mayo and left tackle Nate Solder, a case could be made that outside of quarterback Tom Brady, there is not one other player more important or valuable to the Patriots’ success than tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Gronkowski has absolutely proven himself over his first two-and-a-half seasons in the NFL that he is the league’s best all-around tight end, and he is both the Patriots’ most explosive offensive weapon and a go-to downfield receiver for Brady. The Patriots, however, could be playing without him for the rest of the regular season.
Gronkowski suffered a broken forearm while blocking on an extra point late in the fourth quarter of the Patriots’ 59-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. After undergoing surgery this week, Gronkowski is expected to be out four to six weeks.
The earliest that Gronkowski would likely be available to return is Week 16, but I wouldn’t guarantee seeing Gronkowski back on the field until the playoffs.
With a three-game lead in the AFC East, the Patriots will likely have clinched a division title already by Week 16. Their games against the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers, arguably the NFL’s two best teams, will already have been played. With their only remaining regular-season games at this point being against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins, the Patriots would be silly to rush Gronkowski back from injury.
But with those two very tough games still to come, not having Gronkowski is the lineup is certainly be a tough blow, and one that could deter their chances of earning a first-round bye in the AFC.
Although the Patriots have four other tight ends on their roster, Gronkowski cannot be replaced by one player. The return of Aaron Hernandez from an ankle injury will at least give the Patriots an inside downfield receiving threat in Gronkowski’s absence, but he is a very different player than Gronkowski. There is not one player on the Patriots’ roster with the combination of size and athleticism that Gronkowski has, nor is there a player as good at making big receiving plays while also contributing as a blocker.
The Patriots are going to need a committee of players to step up in Gronkowski’s absence. If Hernandez is healthy, Brady will still have two go-to receiving targets in Hernandez and wide receiver Wes Welker, but the Patriots also need wide receiver Brandon Lloyd to become a bigger downfield threat in Gronkowski’s absence.
Additionally, the Patriots really need at least one of their other three tight ends to step up to help fill the void of Gronkowski not being in the lineup. Michael Hoomanawanui is a strong, powerful run blocker who can help replace Gronkowski in that part of his game, but he is not much of a receiver.
What the Patriots should really be looking for is an increased contribution from either Visanthe Shiancoe or Daniel Fells. Both tight ends have been productive receivers in the past with previous teams, but neither has had any significant production this season in New England. With Gronkowski out of the lineup, this should be a golden opportunity for either to get increased playing time and show that they can still be a playmaker in the league, if either of them still can be.
The Patriots still have a playmaker-laden offense led by one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, so Gronkowski’s injury should not keep them from continuing to be the NFL’s most productive offenses in terms of total yardage and points scored. He will certainly be missed, however, when the Patriots play two of the NFL’s elite defenses against the Texans and 49ers.
Those defenses both have tremendous defensive front sevens that will bring pressure against Brady and give the run game serious trouble. The Patriots will really miss Gronkowski’s physical blocking presence on a down-to-down basis, while Brady will be without one of his most reliable targets who he can go to when under pressure.
Where they could be most affected by Gronkowski’s absence is if they find themselves in close games, which is very likely against the Texans and 49ers.
Gronkowski leads the Patriots with 10 receiving touchdowns, while no other receiver on the team has more than three. That is because Gronkowski is Brady’s primary target in the red zone, while he has also been on the receiving end for a large percentage of the Patriots’ big passing plays this season. He leads the team with 12 receptions of 20 or more yards this season.
When the Patriots need a big drive in the fourth quarter, Gronkowski usually becomes a leading source of offense. Brady looks to Gronkowski to make big plays to get the team into scoring position, and then goes back to him in the red zone to make catches in the end zone. Without Gronkowski, players like Welker, Hernandez, Lloyd and Julian Edelman need to step up to become the sources of those big plays.
The news could be much worse on Gronkowski. He should be back for the postseason, when the Patriots will need him most, as they are already largely in control of the race for the division title.
That said, if Gronkowski’s absence is the difference between even winning and losing one game, that could be enough to keep the Patriots, who are currently tied for third in AFC standings, from getting a first-round bye, or even the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs.