The Patriots are going to have to find a way to be productive on offense without having Rob Gronkowski and they only have three weeks to figure it out. Gronk was not only a productive player in his own right, but he opened up the field around him so others could make plays.
In the six full games that Gronk played in, he accounted for 15.1% of the touch attempts (number of plays thrown at and rushing attempts) and 23.0% of the offensive yardage. If the Patriots are to make a strong push at the end of the season, they're going to need players who can account for those percentages.
In the likelihood that the Patriots revert back to their pre-Gronk offensive schemes, there are a few changed variables. Take note that early in the season, the Patriots were playing without Shane Vereen or Danny Amendola, and Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins were dropping nearly every other pass (and I'm not exaggerating).
Since that time, we've seen Vereen and Amendola return, Julian Edelman has emerged, and Dobson and Thompkins are now catching around 60% of their pass attempts (an improvement!). So if you're afraid this offense will go back to the sputtering mess that we saw in the first quarter of the season, I wouldn't worry about a total regression.
In fact, with Josh Boyce as a new weapon to potentially stretch the field on the outside, we might see an offensive style the Patriots haven't featured in quite a while.
When it comes to determining who will pick up the slack from the absence of Gronk, there's one player who should be in the spotlight: Shane Vereen.
In the five games that Vereen has played, he's accounted for an astronomical 25.8% of the touch attempts and 24.6% of the total offensive yards. He's a quarter of the Patriots offense, and that with Gronkowski on the field. Without Gronk, I wouldn't be surprised to see the linebacker-mismatch spike up to around 30% of both the touches and the yards.
Now those percentages are actually not that crazy. When looking at the rest of the league, here's a list of players who see over 25% of their team's touch attempts or yards (ranked by adjusted touch attempts):
(note: The adjusted numbers aren't precise at all. It's for injured players and it's an extrapolation over the 13 game season. These should be slight overestimates as offenses should have suffered with these players on the sideline)
The teams highly reliant in individual performers see their percentages even closer to 40%. When Vereen is active, he's contributing in roughly the same range as Knowshon Moreno or Arian Foster. In order to compensate for the loss of Gronk, don't be surprised if Vereen is elevated into the Reggie Bush/DeMarco Murray range. For those interested in fantasy football, especially points per reception leagues, that places Vereen as an extremely strong RB2, and borderline RB1.
The other Patriots should see spikes as well. In games with Vereen, players like Edelman (12.5% touch attempts, 16.8% yards) and Amendola (11.1%/11.3%) should see increases as well. Factor in that Vereen has only played one game with a healthy Dobson and Thompkins (week 10) and we should see a fairly even split among the receivers.
Last week saw Brady complete a pass to ten different receivers. Even if next week won't reach that number, the Patriots can be expected to have multiple people step up to replace Gronk's production. And if we see the 2:1 pass:run yard production that the Patriots have had, we can paint a fair picture of what can be expected.
Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount will account for roughly 80-100 rushing yards and maybe a touchdown. Vereen will add on roughly 30 rushing yards of his own, as well as an additional 12-15 targets catches for 80-100 yards and a touchdown. Edelman will count for 10-12 targets, 80 yards, and a touchdown; Amendola will have 7-9 targets, 60 yards, and maybe a touchdown; if Dobson and Thompkins play, they'll like split 10 targets between themselves for 75 yards. Add in a random catch between Boyce, James Develin, Matthew Mulligan, and the popcorn guy, and that'll be the Patriots offense against the Dolphins.
It'll be no easy task replacing the lost productivity of Gronkowski. But the Patriots are in a position where they have offensive personnel that haven't been active at the same time and they have ability to redefine themselves in the final few weeks of the season.