The Patriots were fortunate to bring back All Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski in Week 7 against the Jets. In his first game back, albeit a losing effort, Gronk threw up an absurd 8 receptions for 114 yards. Welcome back, Gronk, no easing in.
Prior to Gronk, the Patriots offense was averaging 20.8 points per game. Since his return, they've exploded to 32.6 points, which trails only the Broncos over the course of the full season. In fact, the offense now ranks 6th in points per game. We all knew his impact would be huge, and the proof is in the pudding. Gronk runs the offense.
Since Gronk's return, he leads the team with 49 targets and 433 yards. Behind him are Aaron Dobson (262) and Julian Edelman (199) with 28 targets each. Danny Amendola trails with 23 targets and 199 yards, Shane Vereen has 22 targets and 125 yards, and Kenbrell Thompkins brings up the rear with 17 targets and 132 yards.
However, it was clear that Gronk wasn't at full health and his impact in Miami was minimal (2 catches, 27 yards). Still, his full season projection at his current pace is a fantastic 99 receptions, 1386 yards, and 10 touchdowns.
His past three games (Steelers, Panthers, Broncos) has been back to his more active self and it's clear that he's back as he played every snap against the Broncos. Those three games rate him out at 112 receptions, 1557 yards, and 16 touchdowns.
Over that span of three games, Gronk has 27 targets (292), followed by Vereen (22, 125), Edelman (19, 148), Amendola (17, 184), Dobson (16, 168), and Thompkins (11, 116). Oh, and Vereen has only played two of those games. Besides Gronk and Vereen, it's clear that the Patriots are riding whoever is playing well as they've shuffled between their depth at the position (and because Josh McDaniels admitted to playing the hot hand).
Each receiver has its own skill set that warrants play time. Gronk and Vereen are both scheme transcendent and are used in any situation (as an All World tight end and a check down target are often played).
Behind them, Edelman is the most experienced in the system and seems to have Tom Brady's trust. He's able to get off of tight coverage and, while he doesn't have break away speed to get open in the deep field, he has the ability to get open quickly. Edelman will see play time when the face dominating pass rush and when the offense wants to get rid of the ball quickly.
Amendola has a little more open field speed than Edelman and has a similar knack for getting open. He's still playing with a strained groin, so it's likely the Patriots are limiting his snaps to save his health. As a result, Amendola doesn't have the same shake that Edelman does at the current point in time, so he'll likely be used in less time-sensitive match-ups. Still, when healthy he would be up with Gronk and Vereen in playing against every scheme.
Dobson is a big target threat, but he's still developing. He has the best second move on the team when he needs to get open, but the issue is having the time to reach that second move. When playing against a pass rusher like Von Miller, or even J.J. Watt, who can take over a game, we'll probably see less of Dobson. Still, he's developing and when he's on the field he's always a threat to be open.
Thompkins is the current hot hand after getting benched a couple weeks ago. He's able to break off on his initial move, which makes him a prime candidate against quick defenses. His hands have greatly improved, as his catch rate of 72.7% (8 catches, 11 targets) puts him on par with Vereen and ahead of Edelman. His upside isn't as great as Dobson, which is why it's still important to give Dobson snaps, but Thompkins has been a reliable outside receiver over the past couple of weeks and that's something the team has lacked the past few years.
As the Patriots head in to face the Texans and the Ravens, look for Thompkins and Edelman to continue to see more snaps than Dobson and Amendola, with Amendola being the third receiver off the bench. Part of it will be because of their skill set and part of it will be because of how well they've been playing. The return of Gronk has worked magic on the offense and we're just starting to see how the offense can grow and develop with its current pieces.