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What If Rob Gronkowski Were to Be Lost for the Season?

The "What If Series speculates how the offensive personnel and distribution will change if a starter misses time. Next up: Rob Gronkowski.

Rob Gronkowski is an animal. I'm surprised the guy didn't break his neck a couple of years ago on this long reception against the Chiefs. He landed on his head at the end of this play on Monday Night Football. 

Combine this reckless style of play with a forearm injury that was compounded by an infection and then another back issue that required a second surgery since his junior year in college and despite a prognosis for a complete recovery, some will fear that the Patriots tight end might not last the 2013 campaign. The "What If" Series is about indulging this fearful thinking to develop a contingency plan if you're going to draft a player a superstar whose shoes will may be difficult to fill if he doesn't last the season. 

The series also provides fantasy owners a chance to see where the production might be redistributed in the offense and then make decisions on depth at not only at tight end, but also other skill talent in New England that could yield dividends in a starting lineup. The analysis will also give fantasy owners a chance to learn which players have a chance to draft or acquire as trade bait in exchange for a serviceable tight end if Gronkowski misses time and leaves a crater-sized hole in your roster. 

Covering The Roles, but Not The Hole: Patriots Tight End Depth Chart

If Gronkowski misses time once he returns to the field in September, the only way New England could replace its start tight end in role, production, and reliability is if they acquire Vernon Davis or rookie Travis Kelce in a trade or discover the fountain of youth, make a deal for Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, or Jason Witten, and sprinkle them with the water. If there were such a thing as the fountain of youth and the Patriots had it, don't think for a minute Tom Brady wouldn't have stolen it, drank enough return to age 25, and doused Ryan Mallett and Tim Tebow with enough to send them back to middle school before the team could use it as intended.

No chance that New England will be able to do the same things with the same level of efficiency and flexibility at the tight end position if Gronkowski misses time. Gronkowski is among the best blocking tight ends in the NFL. Michael Hoomanawanui is a solid blocker, but more of a run game mauler who won't lead the charge on pitch plays and sweeps with the alacrity to the edge of Gronkowski. Daniel Fells moves better, but he's not the downfield threat with and without the ball in his hand. Jake Ballard stretched the seam and made quality plays as an intermediate threat and red zone option for Eli Manning in New York, but a knee injury has continued to rob Ballard of his athleticism early in camp and there's speculation he might not make the team.

That leaves rookie Zach Sudfeld, a big, fluid athlete who lacks Gronowski's speed and power, but had an important role in Chris Ault's Nevada offense versatile option in the Pistol as an inline tight end, H-Back, lead blocker, and receiver split away from the formation. He's the most fluid of the Patriots tight ends behind Gronkowski and if he can maintain his productive training camp performance, I think he'll earn targets if Gronkowski is out.

Sudfeld will be effective split away from the formation and targeted over his head because of his 6'7", 253-pound frame and 37.5"-inch vertical. Corner routes and corner fades where Sudfeld can use his height and the boundary against one defender will probably be the primary down-field targets that could generate big plays of lesser difficulty and serve as change-ups to the regular feeding of seam, short post, hook, and drag routes.  Still, Sudfeld will not have the same consistent match up advantages against linebackers and safeties as Gronkowski so don't expect double-digit touchdowns or yardage totals that would put the rookie on track for 700-plus yards over a 16-game season.

As I mentioned in the "What If" installment on Danny Amendola, Sudfeld's skill sets as a wing back and H-Back are more akin to the Aaron Hernandez role. If Gronkowski gets hurt, I think Hoowanamanui and Fells are primary options in a blocking/short-yardage receiver platoon as the in-line tight end replacements unless Ballard suddenly regains his old Giants form. There will be some touchdowns to be had on play action passes where one of these two sneak through the line, but I wouldn't' be surprised if New England uses them as decoys and throws more touchdown passes to a tackle eligible if forced to play without Gronkowski.

Another option could be Tim Tebow as a recipient of these passes at tight end. I also wouldn't be surprised if Tebow lines up as a wing back or even a runner in the shotgun next to Brady in red zone situations. We might see more run-pass options with Tebow in the red area if Gronkowski is missing in action.

As for Sudfeld, expect more plays where he is the lead blocker to seal the edge while Hoowanamanui or Fells are working outside-in on run plays. This will make the calls more predictable than with Gronkowski, because the star tight end's athleticism made him capable of sprinting to the flat or sealing inside with a remarkable ease that few others in the NFL are capable. None of these tight ends have the athleticism after the catch to run past and run through wraps like Gronkowski, either. It means that together, this tight end depth chart can cover the roles, but they won't fill the hole unless they make an unlikely trade.

Flooding Zones: An Outpouring of Young, Unproven Talent At WR

The last time the Patriots had a proven and productive wide receiver capable of dominating any defender it was Randy Moss. After trading Moss, New England has tried to recapture that veteran-looking-for-another-chance elixir with Chad Johnson and Brandon Lloyd with little success. Admitting that it's personnel department has whiffed on wide receivers, the Patriots opted for another approach.

They downloaded the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio.

A guy can dream, right? What New England has done is flood its roster with receivers. Specifically, the organization is placing an emphasis on rookie talent:

  • Josh Boyce (rookie): Capable of stretching a defense with his speed before and after the catch.
  • Aaron Dobson (rookie): Fluid receiver capable of showy catches and adjustments to the target.
  • Mark Harrison (rookie): Brandon Marshall dimensions with inconsistent hands, but big upside.
  • Kenbrell Thompkins (rookie): Antonio Brown's cousin took a circuitous route to NFL but great work ethic, good routes, and hands.
  • Perez Ashford (rookie): Smaller frame with a knack for sick adjustments ala Victor Cruz.
  • Kamar Aiken: A practice squad holdover from last year after a training camp with Buffalo. Good size at 6'2, 211 lbs.
  • Michael Jenkins: A veteran of multiple systems with a possession receiver skill set.
  • Danny Amendola: The Wes Welker replacement.

The only receiver on the roster who contributed last year was Julian Edelman. Based on camp performances thus far, only Amendola's spot as a starter seems settled. What this means is there may be as many as five receivers earninig time in a rotation of 2-3 spots. Then there's the likelihood of Sudfeld and running back Shane Vereen getting split from the formation in the slot or wide.

If the Patriots use Sudfeld and Vereen this way with 12 personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends, 2 receivers), then the rotation among receivers could make starting any of them beyond Amendola a crap shoot. The viability of this personnel set will hinge on Sudfeld's ability to earn a role in the offense, considering he's well on his way towards making the roster.

As I mentioned earlier, if Gronkowski gets hurt it's like that Sudfeld remains in the old Hernandez role, which means continued 12 personnel sets to exploit the rookie's talents. At the same time, there could be an increase of 11 personnel, 10 personnel and even a few more empty sets if two of the five rookies can demonstrate enough consistency to perform in the offense and beat NFL defenders.

My top three rookie candidates for those second, third, and fourth spots are Thompkins, Boyce, and Dobson. After earning a lot of early love in mini camp and the first weekend of training camp for catching everything in sight, earning praise from cornerback Aqib Talib, and earning first-team reps, Thompkins had a poor night in scrimmages, dropping multiple passes and running the wrong route that led to an interception.

However, he made a beeline to the JUGs machine after practice and the following day, rebounded with another strong day in practice with first-team reps. That's a great sign of work ethic, mental toughness, and consistent skill from a young player. the fact that several observers said he looked like the best player on the field may be hyperbole, but considering he's an undrafted free agent it's a telling indication that he should be climbing lists from late-round dynasty pick to late-round player who is gaining ground in larger re-draft leagues. 

A big reason is routes. His skill at getting separation off the line is something I profiled all winter and spring and he's continuing to show he can do it at the NFL level. 

No, Ras-I Dowling isn't a fine starting quarterback, but you can see the hips dropping, the quickness, and the layering of moves to get separation. It's all there. 

Boyce and Dobson are the higher profile picks who are beginning to assert themselves in camp. Boyce has dealt with a foot injury and Dobson had some issues with drops, but is improving. I think they'll platoon for time if Edelman overcome a foot injury that has kept him out summer practice. While I think Thompkins is gaining an early lead for playing time, the preseason games and first month of the regular season will make this a fluid situation. Keeping this rookies on speed dial for your waiver wire is wise course. 

If this becomes a rotation, expect Boyce and Thompkins to earn deep routes and Dobson to play a similar role as Michael Jenkins has throughout his career, but with more upside as a red zone threat. 

While I expect Brady's passing yards to drop to the 4400-4500 level with a semi-healthy Gronkowski, I think his touchdown passes will drop below 30 if the tight end gets hurt again in the first half of the season and is lost for the season. Some of this has to do with the youth at receiver as well as a bigger desire to incorporate Tebow in the red zone as described above. 

Shane Vereen: "Say Hello To My Little Friend"

Vereen's pass receiving and experience with his Patriots offense - even with limited time on the field during his first two seasons - means he'll likely see time as a slot receiver and even split wide. I woudn't be shocked if New England incorporates shotgun sets with Vereen and Ridley in the same backfield and then shifts one of the runners to the slot or wide depending the defensive look.

Vereen, Amendola, Edelman, Boyce, and Thompkins are the players I would expect to see as recipients of quick screen passes to the flats. If Gronkowski misses time, I think we'll see even more bunch or empty sets with these rookies clearing out zones and Vereen and Amendola working underneath. 

At the same time, I don't expect an increase from the ground game. Among Ridley, Vereen, Danny Woodhead, and Brandon Bolden, New England ran the ball 484 times in 2012. I have them projected for 490 carries betweent the three still on the roster. It may seem logical that we'd expect an increase of attempts on the ground if Gronkowski misses time, but because the tight end is such a good blocker I think his absence would influence the Patriots to pass more - thus Vereen becomes an even more targeted option. 

The Crib Sheet

If Gronkowski doesn't last, here's how I see things as of late July - early August:

  • Julian Edelman earns more targets both in the slot and outside and has a shot at 50-60 catches, 600-800 yards, and 6-8 scores if healthy. 
  • Shane Vereen ups his potential from a 60-catch back to an 80-catch player with a shot at RB1 production in PPR leagues and strong RB2 in non-PPR formats. 
  • Stevan Ridley continues to earn RB2 production regardless of Gronkowski's absence because the running back is primarily and inside runner and there's enough skill with Hoomanuwanui and Fells to provide serviceable work up front and Zach Sudfeld is a good lead blocker due to his extensive work as the H-Back in Chris Ault's Pistol formations.
  • More multiple receiver sets involving rookies flooding the zones in bunched and/or empty sets. The best route runner is rookie Kenbrell Thompkins and he could surprise as a flex-option or perhaps a WR3 if he continues his outstanding summer. If not, then look for a platoon system where these players are strictly late-round options with waiver appeal as we learn more. 
  • Danny Amendola is the surest bet as a fantasy wide receiver on the team and should see top-20 production as a lock. 
  • Zach Sudfeld will continue to play the Hernandez role in certain packages and it means more targets in the red zone and on intermediate routes where his height can be an asset. Think bye-week or flex-option.  
  • Tom Brady's red zone production may take a dip, due to the rookie learning curve at receiver, but also expect some novelty plays to compensate for some of this drop. Some may involve Tim Tebow as a tight end. 

Of course, stay tuned to camp updates, which could further revise our view of one of the most wide-open competitions for offensive spots in the NFL this summer.