Hernandez and Gronkowski are at the forefront of the offense, but their future is blurry for 2013.
The New England Patriots have spent the past few seasons gearing their offense to run through its two tight ends, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
With significant injury concerns affecting both—Gronkowski with the rehab from his forearm surgery and Hernandez with a recent shoulder surgery that will keep him out through minicamp—it's fair to wonder whether the Patriots are equipped to make it through whatever time period they might be without one or both of their key offensive players.
It should be duly noted beforehand, however, that at present, neither is in jeopardy of missing time in 2013. Gronkowski doesn't have another surgery scheduled, so reports that he could miss Week 1 seem to have been premature. If other reports are accurate, Hernandez's status will be cleared up before training camp begins.
However, Hernandez has already missed at least two games in each of his three seasons, including six games last year. Gronkowski missed five regular-season games and a playoff game, and his injury in Super Bowl XLVI also proved costly.
The Patriots understand they need to have a good backup plan at tight end, and they have invested valuable resources to that end. In 2011, the team added Marshall tight end Lee Smith in the fifth round of the draft and added undrafted free agent Will Yeatman, only to have both of them snatched off waivers.
This past offseason, the Patriots took a very aggressive approach to their backup situation at tight end, adding Jake Ballard off waivers as the New York Giants tried to sneak him past. They also signed free-agent tight ends Daniel Fells, Visanthe Shiancoe and later Michael Hoomanawanui.
They rolled with Fells and Hoomanawanui as the primary backups for 2012, and a look at this snap breakdown reveals a very clear trend: Fells was the primary tight end to get more snaps when Hernandez was out and Hoomanawanui was the guy when Gronkowski was out.
Another important note: The Patriots went with a lot of three-receiver sets when without Hernandez against the Cardinals, the Ravens and the Bills (via ESPN Boston), but when Gronkowski was absent, they stuck with two tight ends.
That may have had something to do with how they utilized Hernandez more as a receiver than a true tight end, but also with the Patriots' depth at wide receiver.
Last year, that three-receiver group was Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Julian Edelman or Deion Branch. This year, it will be some combination of Edelman, Danny Amendola, Donald Jones, Michael Jenkins and any receiver(s) they may add through the draft.
We may not have to even think about any of that, though. It looks like both will be ready to go for the start of the season, but the question is whether they'll be 100 percent; Gronkowski's injury sounds like the one that's most likely to trickle over into the regular season.
If that's the case, last year's trend tells us to expect more of the same with the two-tight end set. The question then becomes whether the fallback option is still Hoomanawanui or if a return to health for Ballard moves him into the top spot among backup tight ends.
He was also a chronic target in the red zone. In fact, 13 red zone targets in 2011 tied wide receiver Hakeem Nicks for the most on the Giants.
The Patriots are closely familiar with how effective Ballard can be in the red zone, as he broke past linebacker Tracy White for a touchdown in their 2011 regular-season meeting.
They obviously respect his versatility, as they wouldn't have brought him in to just ride the pine for a year.
It looks like that one-year investment in Ballard on the shelf could pay off if Gronkowski is the one on the shelf this season.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless otherwise noted, all stats obtained from ProFootballFocus.com's premium stats, and all quotes obtained firsthand or via team press releases.