Inside Slant: Patriots without Gronkowski

June, 26, 2014
Jun 26
10:00
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The top story of the New England Patriots' offseason -- other than Tom Brady's status as an elite quarterback Insider, of course -- has been the recovery and projected return of Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski from two torn ligaments in his right knee.

To which I ask: Are we obsessing over the right issue? Rather than trying to pinpoint Gronkowski's return to full strength, perhaps it would be more productive (and realistic) to gauge whether the Patriots are any better equipped to play without him than they were last season.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsThe Patriots made some subtle offseason moves that could keep the offense humming when tight end Rob Gronkowski isn't on the field.
The Patriots, as you probably know, had two offenses in 2013: A good one in the seven games Gronkowski played and an underwhelming one that struggled in the nine he missed. The chart, via ESPN Stats & Information, illustrates Gronkowski's impact in the red zone. It's also worth noting that Brady completed 64.1 percent of his passes in the Gronkowski games and 57.6 in the others. (Brady targeted Gronkowski 66 times during that period, 17 more than any other Patriot.)

Given that context, it's perfectly understandable to pine for Gronkowski's immediate return. Recent history, however, suggests the Patriots' 2014 success will depend in part on whether they can reduce their dependence on him.

Although he is just 25, Gronkowski has missed 14 regular-season games over the past two seasons with serious injuries to his knee and arm. His deliberate return from multiple arm surgeries last season -- he wanted to avoid exposure at less than 100 percent -- provides important context for his approach this summer. Even if it is only a worst-case scenario, the Patriots have had adequate time to plan for and anticipate playing at least some games without Gronkowski.

Importantly, their strategy won't include the security blanket whose departure blindsided them last season. As they monitored Gronkowski's arm problems in 2013, of course, the Patriots thought they would still have Aaron Hernandez to man their tight end position. Hernandez's arrest on murder charges, and his subsequent release in June 2013, forced an undesirable shift to Plan C in Gronkowski's absence.

So have the Patriots done enough over the past months to elevate a potential Gronkowski-less team? On the surface, they appear to be relying on many of the same faces who proved inconsistent at best in 2013 -- including injury-prone receiver Danny Amendola. A closer look, however, reveals a more promising outlook.

"They might lack a No. 1 receiver without Gronkowski," said Matt Williamson, who scouts the NFL for ESPN.com. "But they have a very deep stable."

Indeed, the Patriots haven't done much to upgrade their tight end depth; their No. 2 is Michael Hoomanawanui (37 career catches in four seasons) at the moment. (They did host Jermichael Finley on a free-agent visit.) But an argument could be made that their receiving corps, backfield and interior line are all in better position to help compensate for Gronkowski's possible absence.

Amendola has missed 24 games in the past three seasons and isn't to be trusted, Williamson said. (From a roster-planning standpoint, I agree.) But the Patriots made sure to re-sign Julian Edelman after he caught a career-high 105 passes in the slot role, and free-agent acquisition Brandon LaFell is big enough (210 pounds) to be used in a quasi-tight end position. It also stands to reason that at least one of the Patriots' two young receivers from last season, Aaron Dobson (37 receptions) and Kenbrell Thompkins (32), will benefit from a full offseason of work to elevate his game.

"Edelman really had a great year last season and is a premier slot guy in my opinion," Williamson said. "And I think Dobson has a chance to really break out, especially as a downfield receiver. I also keep hearing that Thompkins is tearing it up this offseason."

To enhance their backfield, the Patriots used a fourth-round draft pick on running back James White. Among other things, White caught 39 passes for Wisconsin in his final season and could provide Brady with another Shane Vereen-like option in the passing game. Two other draft choices, Bryan Stork (center) and Jon Halapio (right guard), will raise the competition at positions that caused Brady problems last season.

We tend to look for big-ticket items to mark offseason improvement. It would be much easier to draw conclusions about the Patriots' Plan B if they had committed a major asset to acquire a No. 1 receiver or maneuvered to draft an instant-impact tight end. Generally speaking, I think we all know the Patriots don't operate in such dramatic fashion.

There are no easily identifiable signs that tell you they have put together a more balanced offense, and in truth, no team can expect an equal performance without one of its best players on the field. If you look close enough, however, you can see that the Patriots seem to have planted the seeds of nuanced possibility.

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