- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski undergoes back surgery Tuesday, giving him an 83-day window between now and the regular-season opener Sept. 8 against the Bills.
His status, and how New England might manage the roster in his absence, is where this week's Patriots mailbag begins. From there, the team's receiver position receives plenty of attention, as it is one of the more pressing questions facing the club.
It is often said that there is no longer an offseason in the NFL, and that is true in a sense. But if there is one stretch on the calendar where players and coaches can get away a bit, this is it. The full-team, on-field portion of the offseason program is over, and the next big date on the calendar is the start of training camp in late July.
However, based on the submissions to the mailbag, this clearly does not mean that Patriots chatter will subside. There is plenty to discuss, so let's get right to it.
Q: Hi Mike, I'm surprised by all the talk of placing Rob Gronkowski on the physically unable to perform list to start the season. I think people are under-selling the importance of what PUP means to practice time; if Gronk is on PUP, he won't be able to practice until Week 6 at the earliest, which means that after coming off PUP in Week 6, Gronk would still need time to get up to game speed. To me, a more reasonable scenario would be to ramp up Gronk's snaps over several weeks after he is cleared by doctors to practice (which is likely to occur around Week 2 if there are no setbacks). What do you think? Are people overrating how beneficial PUP would be because they forget the impact on practice time? -- Matt (Calif.)
A: Matt, based on Gronkowski's importance to the offense, it probably will come down to his projected recovery time. If the Patriots think there is a realistic chance Gronkowski could play in Week 2, they probably wouldn't put him on the PUP list (as he wouldn't be eligible to play until Week 7 at the earliest). He's simply too valuable a player to concede to not having for five games, and the roster spot you gain by having Gronkowski on PUP doesn't outweigh the value of having Gronkowski on the roster. However, I think we have to let that process play out and see how Gronkowski responds to the back surgery he is undergoing today (June 18) and how the left forearm recovers. If he does land on PUP, I think he could work himself into good condition to be ready to go in Week 7. It might not be a full-game effort, but we've seen players make that quick turnaround before. Overall, I expect the Patriots to take the conservative approach with Gronkowski.
Q: Hi Mike, I've seen reports that Zach Sudfeld has impressed during these OTAs. His presence seems to add to an already deep position at tight end. How many roster spots are there for TE and what are the chances one of these rehabbing guys might be designated to the Active/Pup list? -- Jeff (San Francisco)
A: Jeff, Gronkowski would appear to be the only candidate for PUP at the position. As for how many spots are available at tight end, four seems like the target. They could keep Sudfeld as a fifth if they want to avoid the risk of putting him on waivers, as they did unsuccessfully with Will Yeatman (claimed by Dolphins) and Lee Smith (claimed by Bills) in 2011. If they do keep five, they'd have to trim in other areas, with running back, linebacker, receiver or No. 3 quarterback being the most likely cuts based on the special teams linkage between those spots.
Q: Hi Mike, why won't the team spend money on a quality outside WR? I know they paid Danny Amendola, but the Pats have had so much trouble developing wideouts I think they should have tried to pick up a good outside guy too. Obviously throwing money at free agents doesn't always produce results and Brady is good at making average WR look good, but they have to play to his strengths! Banking on the rookies and castoffs to become major contributors seems too risky. As always I'm sure the team will be fine, but that doesn't mean they'll be good enough (to win the big one that is). Do you think the recent regrettable trade for Chad Johnson/Ochocinco played into the decision not to pursue a quality outside threat? -- Kevin (State College, Pa.)
A: Kevin, they tried to sign Steelers restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders to an offer sheet, and based on their lack of success, it's easy to look back and say that the offer could have been higher. Otherwise, I'm not sure what else they could have done, other than overpay for Steelers unrestricted free agent Mike Wallace, which doesn't fit into the way they build their team and probably would not have allowed them to bring back Aqib Talib and Sebastian Vollmer. I like the idea of working to draft and develop a receiver, similar to what the Ravens have done with Torrey Smith and the Packers have done with Randall Cobb. It doesn't always work out, as we've seen with the Patriots when they've gone that route, but I don't think that means you stop trying. To me, that's the best route to go -- but you just have to hit on the pick. That's been a challenge for the Patriots.
Q: Hi Mike, the minicamp has shown what a task and/or burden stands before Tom Brady with this collection of new receivers. Phone calls to Donte' Stallworth and Deion Branch have to surely be in the mix before or by training camp especially with the real possibility that Rob Gronkowski will be on PUP list until mid-October. Your thoughts? -- Jake Malone (Vancouver, B.C.)
A: Jake, Stallworth has signed with the Redskins, so that option isn't available at this time. Branch remains unsigned. If the Patriots get in a pinch, it wouldn't be surprising to see Branch back. But my sense is that the Patriots would view that as a last-resort type of situation. Branch's knowledge of the offense and rapport with Tom Brady still has some value, but I think the physical part of the game (speed, separation etc.) is where time has caught up with him a bit. This is where the club might have to endure some early growing pains with a younger receiver with upside (usually it takes even top receivers a little time to break into the system), balancing the short- and long-term benefits. Branch might be able to help more now, but a young receiver like Aaron Dobson or Josh Boyce has a higher ceiling.
Q: Hi Mike, when looking ahead to the upcoming season, I can't help but feel that if the Patriots have Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman healthy, their offense will be extremely difficult to stop. That being said, each of those four can be labeled as injury-prone. I think I will be watching each offense play this year in fear that the roof is going to cave in. Please calm my fears. Gronkowski will be as good as new, Hernandez' shoulder is solid, Edelman's foot is perfect and Amendola will complete a full season. I'm right Mike, please say I'm right. Thanks. -- Gary (East Hanover, N.J.)
A: Gary, this is a tough one to answer with authority. I think your thoughts reflect the concerns of many emailers to the Patriots mailbag, and the best answer I can give is a Bill Belichick special: "It is what it is." I know that's probably not what you wanted to hear, but we can't change the past, and each player mentioned has missed chunks of time with injuries. That doesn't mean it will happen again, so you have to hope for the best. Of the four, I'd say Gronkowski is probably the greatest question mark. I think the other three should be ready for the season opener.
Q: Mike, I can't believe I'm writing this, but I think the passing game is really going to hold the Pats back this year. After years of carrying the team and breaking records, the passing game is in shambles right now. The tight end position is riddled with injuries (I think Gronkowski is going to be out for the year), and you could argue that they have the worst group of receivers in the league. If the rookie receivers don't catch on quickly, they could be in serious trouble. Am I off base with this critique? -- John (Stoneham. Mass.)
A: John, I think they are going to be OK, although it will be a process to get there. At times, it looked rough in organized team activities and minicamp practices, but thankfully for the Patriots, it's just June. There is a long way to go. The return of tight end Aaron Hernandez should help. Julian Edelman too. There is always the possibility of an acquisition (e.g. the trade for nose tackle Ted Washington in 2003; the Jabar Gaffney free-agent signing in 2006). And they still have Tom Brady throwing it, which is a good place to start.
Q: Hi Mike, there's a lot of concern over WR corps with the Patriots, and I understand it, but it's early still. I remember last off season lots of people were fixating on how thin the O line was, but I don't remember any problems once the regular season came along. Couldn't the WR situation be similar? Brady's still throwing the ball. -- Jack (Denton, Texas)
A: Jack, I think it's a fair point. If we knew that Nate Solder would seamlessly transition into a starting left tackle role and that Ryan Wendell would seize the starting center job by playing at such a high level, I don't think there would have been as many alarm bells sounding as there were in 2012 training camp. That's why we have to let the process play out. For what it's worth, the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens have similar questions at receiver. Several other teams too. No one has all the answers right now.
Q: Hi Mike, since chemistry with WR/QB is slow to develop, do you think the Pats may reach out to Brandon Lloyd? I've heard the quirkiness stories, but is that necessarily a bad locker room guy? Also I recalled the Pats wanted him back at a reduced rate. Seems like both sides are heading toward needing each other, why hasn't he caught on with another team yet? -- Mark Wright (Chicago, Ill.)
A: Mark, I'd be surprised if the Patriots bring Lloyd back, unless there is an unexpected run of injuries. I think it's just a lack of "program fit" in the eyes of Bill Belichick.
Q: Mike, like your pieces on those players who appear to have and need to gain momentum coming out of OTA's. I feel that you need to add a couple of names to the list of those who may need to get going and pick it up a bit -- the rookie wide receiver Josh Boyce and Jermaine Cunningham. I realize Boyce was drafted injured, but is he expected to get on the field this year? Or IR? Also, looks like Cunnngham is on the bubble again? -- Speed (South Boston, Mass.)
A: Thanks Speed. I haven't heard anything on Boyce that would indicate he's an injured reserve candidate. But I will stay on top of that one should it change. As for Cunningham, there's nice competition at defensive end for the No. 3 spot behind starters Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich between Cunningham, Justin Francis, Jake Bequette, Michael Buchanan and Jason Vega. I thought Cunningham let the team down in 2012 with his suspension, and when he came back, his role was curtailed. It's my feeling that he still needs to win back the confidence of the coaching staff and his teammates.
Q: Mike, I usually agree with your analysis on the blog, however you are blowing Spikes' absence in voluntary organized team activities out of proportion. Spikes has gone on record saying that he is training at a private facility to increase his speed and become a 3-down linebacker. The biggest reason for this (the one most are overlooking) is that these voluntary workouts are not physically demanding. Spikes cannot get faster if he is not being challenged daily. Another factor to consider is that daily he is getting specialized one-on-one treatment instead of 12 man workouts, sacrificing of course bonding time but not much else for the veteran. The argument about setting the tone for rookie linebackers is tentative at best; Spikes isn't the leader in the locker room, he's the spark plug, the wildcard. Jamie Collins will be following Mayo's footsteps. If he doesn't understand that based on one player not attending OTAs, then the Pats drafted the wrong guy. -- Ethan Francis (Los Angeles)
A: Ethan, we see it differently on this one. I disagree that these voluntary workouts are not physically demanding. That argument makes it sound as though the other 89 players on the roster were at the country club with Bloody Mary's in one hand and a football in the other, while Spikes was grinding away. That is far from reality. Furthermore, the Patriots have solid strength and conditioning coaches in Harold Nash and Moses Cabrera. The logic that staying away gives Spikes a better chance at becoming a three-down linebacker is flawed, unless it was a situation where he wanted to avoid injury. That too, it takes more than just physical conditioning to become a three-down linebacker; there is also communication and building trust with teammates. And as for leadership, it's true that Mayo is the leader of the linebackers, but that doesn't mean everyone else is dismissed. Finally, I would also consider the financial perspective -- a lucrative contract is only going to be extended to player whose approach reflects the values of the program. As we've discussed, Spikes was within his rights to stay away. I just think it's naïve to think that his decision won't affect the team's thinking when it comes to a long-term extension.
Q: Hi Mike, during this time between minicamp and training camp, do most of the players stay near the facilities for workouts? -- Justin Collins (La Porte, Texas)
A: Justin, as far as I understand, most of the rookies and first-year players will stick around, while the majority of veterans will not.
Q: If the Pats are going to keep a fullback or two on the 90-man roster, why have they not contacted Vonta Leach? In my opinion, he's as good of a FB as there is. Any chance they reach out and bring him in? -- Eric (Braintree, Mass.)
A: Eric, I'm with you on this one. After the Super Bowl, one of my observations was how a Leach-like presence could benefit the Patriots. I wouldn't rule out the possibility.
Q: In 2002, the Patriots knew right away that Deion Branch was going to be an asset. In 2013, Aaron Dobson has had a number of drops and missed minicamp for unknown reasons. Perhaps the Patriots already realize that he was a poor pick and are not willing to guarantee the money his slot calls for, as he remains unsigned. Thoughts? -- Jim Keddy (Kennebunk, Maine)
A: Jim, I don't think that's it. In fact, I'd be surprised if Dobson isn't signed quickly. There could be a variety of reasons that Dobson is the last unsigned pick, but here is one theory: It keeps the carrot out in front of him and keeps him working hard. That would be my best guess.
Q: Mike, on your roster reset, you say that Tom Brady and Ryan Mallett are locks to make the roster. Could the Tim Tebow signing be the first step to a Mallett trade? If the Patriots consider Brady to have several good years left, might this be part of a strategy that says his eventual replacement is still in college (or if we're lucky high school)? -- Joe (Waimea, HI)
A: Joe, I think a Mallett trade would be more likely in the offseason than right now. I just don't see the suitors at this time. But if Mallett has a big preseason, then I think it increases the likelihood of it happening. I think teams want to see him perform before trading for him.
Q: Mike, what are the chances that Bill Belichick has already decided that Rob Gronkowski is going on the PUP list and that Tim Tebow can fill a void, as a last option, if injuries mount at TE. We've seen in the past you can't have enough depth at TE and it wouldn't surprise me to see Belichick thinking this far in advance. I know Gronk is a possibility to be ready for the start of the season, but he has been limited all offseason with injuries. How in shape can he be? I see Belichick taking a flier on Tebow, for no risk and with huge upside, knowing Gronk is out and they are a couple of injuries away from being out of TE's. -- Matt (Boston)
A: Matt, I've heard this theory from others, but I look at things differently. I believe Tebow is here to be the No. 3 quarterback (if they keep one), and if he shows enough in that role, then maybe they tinker with the extra things Tebow could do. I don't think he was signed to play tight end, fullback or special teams. He is there as a quarterback and locker room presence. Let's circle back at the end of training camp to see if this was off the mark.
Q: Hi Mike, I'd love your thoughts on this concept for the newly acquired Tim Tebow and a possible evolution of Patriots football. Tebow is a great leader and crowd favorite. His skills are limited currently due to his arm strength. I think that he can read defenses, but still needs more experience. The major intangible is that his teammates believe in him wherever he's gone and he gets his team to rally for him. So, here's the concept. The Patriots go to an exclusive two-point conversion team. No more extra points. Put in Tebow at the 3-yard line and have him read defenses, force the primary defense to play a few extra plays a game, and get him to use his running and short passing game skills to the fullest. I believe strongly that he would be able to convert more than 50 percent of the time giving the Patriots an equivalent scoring in points when compared to the extra point. The NFL would be happy too because the fans would get excited about the post-touchdown opportunities. I have no doubt that this would ripple through the NFL and Belichick/McDaniels would be heralded as visionaries (again). -- Walter Kim (Worcester, Mass.)
A: Walter, some believe that more teams should go for the 2-point conversion over the extra point, but I lean more toward the traditional line of thinking. My one counter to your proposal is that if Tebow is the exclusive quarterback in this package, then it means taking Tom Brady off the field. I personally wouldn't want to do that. I think every play that Brady is off the field is a victory for the defense.
Q: I'm a University of New Haven alumni and was very excited to see UNH quarterback Ryan Osiecki working with the Patriots. Has there been any update regarding Osiecki and how he is working out? -- Joe (Wash.)
A: Joe, Osiecki was the quarterback for the team's rookie minicamp after the draft. The Patriots didn't sign him to a contract, but I think Osiecki felt good about the feedback he received from his performance in camp.
Rob Gronkowski's health was again a big focus in this week's mailbag.