Okay, so Rob Gronkowski is done for the season. The Patriots most prolific skill position player, the best tight end in the league, the biggest bro in all of football isn’t going to be suiting up for the Patriots in a meaningful game until September 2013.
Yeah, it sucks. It sucks to know that the Patriots offense will never realize its full potential this season. It sucks to know that the Patriots won’t have that big red zone security blanket. It sucks that the Patriots won’t have Gronkowski as an added blocker in the run game, and as a fallback in the passing game. But is it the end of the world without Gronkowski? Absolutely not.
As redundant as it sounds, the Patriots truly do live on the next man up mentality. So where exactly do the Patriots go from here. Lets take a look at the two players who are likely to replace Gronkowski’s snaps:
Michael Hoomanawanui: Hoomanawanui looked like an afterthought when the Patriots initially signed him in September, as he was absolutely buried on the depth chart. Four months later, and it appears that Hoomanawanui could be a vital piece to a Patriots’ championship run. He finished the year playing in 14 games, starting three in Gronkowski’s place in December. At 6’4” and 263 lbs, he’s got the size you look for in an in-line tight end. He’s an adequate receiver who has displayed relatively soft hands in his limited playing time. The Patriots have used him in motion a lot, and have also lined him up in the backfield on occasion. Hoomanawanui’s biggest asset to the Patriots is his ability as a blocker. He’s shown an ability to seal the edge, and can also get out to the second level pretty well. One thing is clear: the Patriots felt comfortable enough with Hoomanawanui that they played him a total of 50 snaps yesterday. That number could vary greatly depending on the game plan, but expect the Patriots to keep going with the two tight end set. Which means that if you haven’t done so already, you better learn to pronounce Hoomanawanui’s name.
Deion Branch: Deion Branch is the other player who could receive a boost in playing time with Gronkowski out. While Branch only played nine snaps yesterday, he did see his role increase in recent weeks when Gronkowski was hobbled. Branch’s production has been down significantly in 2012, but he still offers some value to the Patriots. He has pretty sure hands for the most part, he has unmatched chemistry with Tom Brady, and he’s the Patriots’ blocking receiver.
Yesterday’s game plan seemed to indicate that the Patriots will go with more two tight end sets than three-receiver sets going forward with Gronkowski out. Nonetheless, I see snaps going both Branch’s and Hoomanawanui’s way. I probably should also mention Daniel Fells. Fells was given a three year deal in the offseason, but hasn’t lived up to his contract. In fact, he was a healthy scratch behind Hoomanawanui for yesterday’s game against the Texans. Going forward, I’d expect him to be the team’s #3 tight end. At this point, however, I wouldn’t expect him to be a huge factor into whatever game plan the Patriots draw up against the Ravens, or potentially the Falcons or 49ers in the Super Bowl.