For the last nine seasons, Rob Gronkowski was a fixture in the New England Patriots offense. Despite having to deal with numerous injuries over the course of his career, the defining tight end of his era still appeared in a combined 131 regular season and playoff games for the team and was one of the toughest matchups in all of football year-in and year-out: a powerful yet nimble receiver that was also able to block like an offensive lineman.
Simply put, Gronkowski was the complete package at the tight end position. Given his retirement announcement earlier this offseason, the Patriots will now have to find a way to operate without contributions from the future Hall of Famer. For New England and its offensive unit, this means plenty of adjustments given that Gronkowski was an every-down player no matter if the situation called for a run or a pass.
“He’s had an incredible career,” said quarterback Tom Brady when asked about the 30-year-old after Thursday’s final minicamp practice. The veteran passer also pointed out that his absence will certainly have an impact on the team. “It’s the first time in a long time and he was such a great player for our team. Like any season, things are different and we’re going to have to adjust differently and teams are going to play us differently without him.”
“We’ve seen it even when he’s been on the team,” continued Brady when talking about how Gronkowski’s presence alone put pressure on opposing defenses in the past: he regularly drew double coverage or other forms of special attention, which in turn opened things up elsewhere — be it for other pass catchers or in the running game. Now, teams will no longer have to fear Gronkowski’s big play abilities and can therefore start focusing on other areas.
As a result, the Patriots will need to adjust and find ways to still put pressure on opposing defenses even without their most talented weapon of the last decade. “No one’s going to make any excuses for our offense. We’re going to do everything we can to be the best we can be, score every time we touch the ball,” said Brady. “The tight end position’s a big part of our offense and those guys are going to have to do a great job for us.”
‘Those guys’ are all relatively inexperienced in the Patriots’ (current) offensive system: Matt LaCosse, Benjamin Watson and Andrew Beck were all added over the course of the offseason, while Stephen Anderson and Ryan Izzo are entering their second year in the system. Unless the Patriots add another player to the equation at a later point, this is what the post-Gronkowski tight end group looks like.
Brady, however, does not seem worried about the comparative lack of pedigree. “The other guys are getting up to speed, Matt’s done a good job, Ben’s done a good job, Stephen Anderson’s done a good job,” the 41-year-old said. “That’s got to be a position of strength even if it’s not one player but multiple players doing different roles. There were times in my career before that where we had similar approaches.”
Seeing New England use a tight-end-by-committee approach — something the team does at the running back position as well — would not be a surprise. With no clear-cut top option available right now (to be fair, though, LaCosse has stood out during minicamp and might be seen as TE1 at the moment) trying to get the most out of each individual’s skill sets seems like a sound plan; one that could help the Patriots counter what defenses will attempt against them moving forward.
For Brady, however, the focus is on the task currently at hand — and his message is a clear one: “This team has to establish something differently,” he said on Thursday. “All the players have to come in and earn a role. That’s what this week is all about.”