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Sunday, April 7, 2013
Gronkowski & Pats' TE depth chart

By Mike Reiss

It is too early to assume that Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski will miss any parts of the 2013 season, but the latest news of a persistent infection and likelihood of a fourth surgery, first reported by the Boston Herald, is indeed a setback. Gronkowski previously said that he had the luxury of a full offseason to heal and that is no longer the case.

First and foremost, one hopes that Gronkowski returns to full health. This couldn’t have been pleasant for him, waking up one morning on the West Coast and looking at a swollen left forearm while seeing discharge. After what he had already been through, it is easy to empathize with what was likely parts fear, parts frustration for him at that moment. Had quick action not been taken, there was potential for future complications.

That’s the human element in play.

Aside from that, from a Patriots perspective, there is also a business element to consider. If Gronkowski is ultimately sidelined for any time in 2013, who is in position to possibly fill the void?

A look at the complete tight end depth chart:

Rob Gronkowski (6-6, 265) -- He played all 16 games in each of his first two NFL seasons, proving his durability and reliability after a back injury in college at Arizona contributed to him slipping to the second round of the draft, before being limited to 11 games last season because of the broken left forearm. Given what Gronkowski is going through with the forearm, some are now asking: Is he injury prone, or is this just a string of bad luck?

Aaron Hernandez (6-1, 245) -- Similar to Gronkowski, few question Hernandez's ability on the field; it’s more about his availability after missing six games last season because of an ankle injury. Hernandez played 14 of 16 games in each of his first two seasons in the NFL. The 2011 fourth-round draft choice is as much of a receiver as he is a tight end, often split out wide, which is a different role than Gronkowski's.

Michael Hoomanawanui (6-4, 263) -- A four-year veteran who joined the team the week before the 2012 opener, Hoomanawanui finished last season as Gronkowski’s top backup and earned a great level of respect from the coaching staff by the end of the year for his professionalism, which was reflected in how he filled in for Gronkowski unexpectedly in the AFC divisional-round playoff win over the Texans. Tendered at $1.3 million as a restricted free agent in 2013, he is part of the team’s Gronkowski-based insurance policy (naturally there is going to be a dropoff from Gronkowski to the next player on the depth chart).

Daniel Fells (6-4, 265) -- Signed to a three-year contract with a maximum value of $7 million last offseason, Fells was in and out of the lineup in 2012, leapfrogged by Hoomanawanui by the end of the year. He factors into the tight end mix at both spots, sometimes backing up Gronkowski with more of an on-the-line presence, and other times being utilized as a backup to Hernandez in more of a split-wide pass-catching role.

Jake Ballard (6-6, 275) -- After being claimed on waivers from the Giants last year, Ballard spent the entire season on injured reserve while recovering from knee surgery. His rehabilitation was a positive course by the end of the year, putting him in position to possibly be part of the mix in 2013. When healthy with the Giants, he wasn’t considered to have top-end speed, doing some of his best work in the short-to-intermediate areas.

Brad Herman (6-5, 255) -- Herman joined the club as a rookie free agent after the 2012 draft, having played in college at Iowa, but injured his Achilles in organized team activities and ultimately landed on season-ending injured reserve.