The New England Patriots will not have left tackle Nate Solder (hamstring) or tight end Rob Gronkowski (hamstring) or right guard Jonathan Cooper (foot) for the season opener against the Arizona Cardinals.
That trio will join quarterback Tom Brady (suspended), running back Dion Lewis (knee), right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (everything), and edge defender Rob Ninkovich (suspended) as starters that will not be taking the field.
It’s one thing to have to play while short-handed. It’s another thing entirely when the Patriots appear to be punting the first week of the season.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is going to be missing two of his projected five starting offensive linemen, and I think Cooper would have started over right guard Shaq Mason, who will be playing with his hand in a club. The only healthy linemen are rookie third round left guard Joe Thuney and sophomore David Andrews, who went undrafted last year.
Garoppolo will also be missing the team’s top running back and top tight end. His top wide receivers are either rusty (Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola), or nicked up (Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell).
This offense is going to be ugly.
As mean as this sounds to Garoppolo and company, though, I’m in full support of the coaching staff resting both Solder and Gronkowski this week. Most already penciled in a loss in week 1, so why unnecessarily risk aggravating what is already an injury? Head coach Bill Belichick is doing the smart thing and cutting his losses in order play another day.
Let Gronkowski and Solder get an extra week of recovery so they can be 100% when they take the field and available when Tom Brady returns and the season actually begins.
And when we looked at this game over the offseason, we knew that the Patriots would need a tremendous defensive performance and a few special teams plays in order to win- and this is still on the table.
The loss of Ninkovich is probably the least problematic of all those sidelined because he’s likely behind Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long, and Trey Flowers at this stage in their careers (there’s a reason the coaching staff asked Ninkovich to play linebacker this year).
The entire first team defense that played well during the preseason will be around to carry the team and force good field position. The special teams unit will have Cyrus Jones around to return kicks. Turnovers and big returns can still happen.
While it would be nice to have Solder and Gronkowski and Cooper to capitalize on whatever trips into the red zone the Patriots offense can muster, the Patriots coaching staff is going to have to find ways to compensate for their losses.
I would expect Cameron Fleming to play left tackle, so Marcus Cannon can remain on the right side. Fleming was Pro Football Focus’s highest graded member of the Patriots offense in the preseason finale against the Giants, so maybe there’s some hope at the position.
The Patriots also retained four tight ends for a reason. They acquired Martellus Bennett so he could step up if Gronkowski missed time. They kept AJ Derby because of his receiving ability and Clay Harbor because of his blocking. This offense will absolutely miss Gronkowski, but they’re in a better position than they’ve ever been when facing a Gronkowski injury.
Look for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to manufacture a lot of quick passes to running backs to keep the pressure off of Garoppolo, and look for LeGarrette Blount to play the game of his life running behind the Patriots offensive line- remember that a Thuney-Andrews-Mason-Cannon quartet is what we all expected, anyways.
So don’t consider the extra rest for Gronkowski and Solder as Bill Belichick punting the first week of the season. The offense is going to take a step back, clearly, but the Patriots were always going to have to rely on their defense to win.