Rob Gronkowski, on the sidelines. Right where Pats fans don't want him.
When it comes to Rob Gronkowski's recovery from a broken forearm, New England Patriots fans can only wait and wonder.
The latest report coming from the Boston Herald last Wednesday indicated that Gronkowski may still have a lingering infection in his forearm. If so, he would require a fifth surgery following the one already needed to change the plate stabilizing the broken bone.
If that's the case, it's likely Gronkowski won't be ready for the start of the upcoming season.
At that point, I'll have to admonish my readers to heed the words of one Douglas Adams.
Sure, if the Pats are Gronk-less again come playoff time, they'll likely come home empty-handed. When it comes to the regular season though, the Pats can still win the division without No. 87.
Let's take a look at a few ways the Pats can counteract the absence of Gronkowski.
Run More Three-Receiver Sets
The Pats have run primarily 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) since the arrival of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. It has been a particularly effective offensive base for the Patriots, since Gronkowski's skill as a mauling blocker and elite receiver allows the Pats to exploit mismatches against both base defenses and sub packages.
Without Gronkowski, that set may not be as effective.Sure, Jake Ballard might be able to slide in Gronkowski's role as an in-line blocker, but who knows how he'll fare after a year on the PUP list.
The better option may be to switch to 11 personnel with Aaron Hernandez as the only tight end. That way, the Pats can bring in Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Aaron Dobson as three receivers with complementary skill sets.
Those three receivers, plus Hernandez, would make for tough covers all over the field.
I detailed in a recent article the ways in which Amendola and Dobson's skill sets may be complementary. Amendola and Hernandez can effectively work the underneath and crossing routes, while the big, fast Dobson seems better suited to work the sidelines.
Obviously, it's sub-optimal—every Pats fan wants Gronk back, but New England might just be able to make this work.
Use the Running Backs More (Including in the Passing Game)
Still, there is room for the Patriots' backs to shoulder even more of the load next season.
That's especially true of Shane Vereen, who has the chance to be an explosive dual-threat back out of the backfield.
When you're done reading this article, take a look at this excellent article by Chris Brown of Grantland.com. Brown details the "Erhardt-Perkins" system the Pats run, which centers on "concepts" instead of formations.
Essentially, any given skill player can line up at any position within a given concept and exploit mismatches. That's why you'll sometimes see Vereen or Ridley split out wide or Hernandez line up behind Brady in the backfield.
Vereen is a viciously speedy back with pass-catching skills. Split him out wide in the no-huddle, run the same concepts you would with any other skill players and he'll be able to take advantage of mismatches against scrambling linebackers in coverage.
As for Ridley, if the concussion symptoms he suffered as a result of Bernard Pollard's hit in last season's AFC Championship Game have ceased, he'll be counted on again to take some of the burden off of Tom Brady. The Pats will need another big year from Ridley between the tackles if they hope to soften up opposing defenses.
If Ridley cannot go or he regresses, the Pats will have to hope either Brandon Bolden or LaGarrette Blount can assume the role of the short-yardage running back if Vereen steps into the featured role.
Bolden had a strong start to the year, but was buried on the depth chart following his suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Blount, who was recently acquired for Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick, is monstrously big, but struggles in pass protection and (inexplicably) short-yardage situations.
Still, as you can see in the video below, he's got some upside if he can stay out of trouble.
Throw Quantity at the Problem
Another, fairly simple way to deal with all this? Utilize the Pats' stable of tight ends to replace individually what Gronkowski can provide collectively.
If one of the Pats' rookie receivers (Dobson, Boyce or Moe) doesn't step up quickly, the Patriots are likely still deeper at tight end than wide receiver—even without Gronkowski. For that reason, the Pats might decide to stick with a twin-tight end—and occasionally, three-tight end—base offensive set.
Between Hernandez, Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells, the Pats have more depth at the position than most teams.
After a disappointing first year, Fells' spot as the fourth tight end might be in jeopardy to a player like undrafted free agent Zach Sudfield, but the rest of the Pats' tight ends all have significant value.
Hernandez is a lock to be on the field as much as possible, if he can stay healthy. Hoomanawanui is an effective in-line blocker while Ballard is a prospect with the potential to be a poor man's version of Gronkowski (a good blocker with the receiving skills to exploit mismatches against slower linebackers).
If the Pats want a power lineup for short-yardage situations, they could run out Hoomanawanui, Ballard and Fells in a three-tight end set and still be able to pass it reliably.
Obviously, Gronkowski's ability to do all the things the other tight ends can do combined, and at an elite level, makes him immensely valuable. In the meantime, the Pats have enough depth at the position to scrape by while he's out.
Get well soon, Gronk.