New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is out for the next two months with a back injury and is expected to undergo surgery on Friday. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to recognize that this is bad for the Patriots and their odds of reaching the Super Bowl, nevermind actually winning the whole thing.
The 6’6, 275 pound, three-time All Pro is the single most unique and dominant offensive skill player in the NFL. His contributions as both a blocker and a receiver is unparallelled. You do not lose a player of his caliber and expect not to have a few speed bumps along the way.
The Patriots seasons always seem to go however Gronkowski goes and the offense fell apart without Gronkowski in the 2011-13 seasons when Gronkowski was either out or limited with an injury. The 2016 Patriots are unique in that they are better prepared than any other Patriots team to overcome the loss of Gronkowski.
Here’s how the loss of Gronkowski will affect the Patriots.
Rob Gronkowski was the team’s best deep threat
Gronkowski currently ranks #1 in the entire NFL, averaging a ridiculous 21.6 yards per catch. Gronkowski has been catching the ball deeper this season and while his touchdown numbers were down, he was still racking up yards at his same pace of roughly 90 yards per game (not including his first two games back as a decoy).
Wide receiver Chris Hogan has been an excellent deep threat for the Patriots, averaging 20.0 yards per reception (#2 in the entire NFL), but he provides an outside threat, instead of a threat up the seam.
Gronkowski pulled the attention of safeties and linebackers up the middle of the field, opening up plays underneath for Julian Edelman and the running backs, and was always a threat to freeze the deep safety to open up a receiver on the other side of the field. Hogan doesn’t add that same quality to the offense.
The Patriots will have to morph the offense to compensate for the loss of Gronkowski. Perhaps Danny Amendola or the slot position will increase in value in the coming weeks.
Martellus Bennett will have to step up
The Patriots acquired Bennett this offseason with a Gronkowski injury in mind. Hopefully Bennett, ankle injury and all, can contribute as both a blocker and a receiver. Bennett hasn’t been a big contributor as a receiver in recent weeks, but he has to do better than the 2 catches for 18 yards that he’s averaged over the past two games.
Bennett is a different type of receiver than Gronkowski. He’s more of a move tight end as a receiver that catches the ball in the flat or underneath to generate yards after the catch. He probably won’t be catching passes up the seam like Gronkowski, but maybe the team can call combination routes with Hogan and Bennett so some semblance of a productive deep threat remains in the Patriots offense.
Unfortunately, the Patriots will only have had a healthy Gronkowski and a healthy Bennett available for just 4 minutes and 11 seconds of the 2016 season, all in the first quarter against the Browns.
The Patriots need to add another tight end to the depth chart
Other than Bennett, Matt Lengel is the only other tight end on the roster. His 6 snap performance in week 11 game against the San Francisco 49ers remains his only NFL experience. Fullback James Develin was used as a blocker at times against the Jets.
Kennard Backman was recently signed to second stint on the practice squad, and fullback Glenn Gronkowski, who was recently released from the practice squad, is another option.
Bear Pascoe spent time with the Patriots over the offseason and remains unsigned. Fullback Marcel Reece has worked out for the Patriots and he has skills as a receiver. Owen Daniels, Daniel Fells, Garrett Graham, Zach Sudfeld (!!), and Tony Moeaki are other veterans worth noting.
But, man, that A.J. Derby trade looks painful in hindsight.
The Patriots should think about Gronkowski’s future
Gronkowski could theoretically be able to return for the Super Bowl. Maybe they could inject his back full of drugs so he wouldn’t feel the pain. The Patriots shouldn’t do this. Let Gronkowski be done for the season and let him heal for 2017.
Gronkowski is under contract through 2019 and his 2017 season will only cost the Patriots his $4.25 million base salary, plus a $750,000 in workout and roster bonuses. This is a bargain for the smallest chance that Gronkowski can return to even just a fraction of his former performance. His roster spot is not in jeopardy.
But this also means that they need to have a long term view with his health. He is an investment. Take care of him.
The Patriots also need to think about the Patriots future
But it’s clear that the Patriots should not rely on Gronkowski ever being 100%. As draft analyst Justis Mosqueda says, “Nobody’s ever ‘had’ a bad back.” Gronkowski has a bad back. This is his third back surgery. He’s had numerous other surgeries on his knees and arms. The Patriots need to prepare in case Gronkowski doesn’t return.
This means extending Martellus Bennett has increased in importance. Drafting a top tier tight end is also a priority and not simply a luxury.
Alabama TE O.J. Howard, Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges, and Michigan’s Jake Butt are all fringe first round prospects. Clemson’s Jordan Leggett, Ole Miss’ Evan Engram, and Arkansas’ Jeremy Sprinkle are day two options.
Even if the Patriots sign Bennett, and even if Gronkowski is able to return, a viable contingency plan is important.
The odds of winning the Super Bowl have greatly declined
This isn’t to say that the Patriots don’t have a chance of winning the Super Bowl; they do. They are still the best team in the AFC and any team can win once they reach the Super Bowl. But the road to the Super Bowl is now much more difficult.
Would the Steelers still be a contender without RB Le’Veon Bell or WR Antonio Brown? Would the Broncos even make the playoffs if they lost ED Von Miller? Are the Raiders a threat if they lose ED Khalil Mack or WR Amari Cooper?
The answer to those questions are probably NO, which just shows the strength of the Patriots roster. This is not the 2013 Patriots where they’re leaning on a pair of rookies at wide receiver. They’re still going to be the AFC favorite, but by less than they were before.
QB Tom Brady is just going to have to step up, along with the other players on the offense. The return of RB Dion Lewis didn’t come a moment too soon.
How will the Patriots replace Gronkowski’s offensive production?
Bennett will take on a larger role at tight end, but look for the Patriots to leverage their depth at wide receiver and running back to supplement the offensive production.
The emergence of rookie WR Malcolm Mitchell is worth monitoring if the Patriots want to place him on the field alongside Bennett, Chris Hogan, and Julian Edelman. The Patriots could also ask Danny Amendola to play a larger role down the stretch.
Look for the Patriots to lean on two running back sets with both James White and Dion Lewis as they are both capable of receiving out of the backfield and even running routes down the field.
When Brady talks about making opponents defend every blade of grass, he means it, so the Patriots will find a way to attack the seams and deep patterns that Gronkowski ran on a regular basis.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Hogan, who is a more vertical receiver, moved back to the slot and was asked to run similar deep crossing patterns and seam routes as Gronkowski, while Mitchell steps up as an outside receiver running the same routes that Brandon LaFell has run in years past. This would allow the Patriots to continue to attack the same areas of the field, while Hogan’s ability as a blocker will still make the play action a viable option.