Should the New England Patriots Start Looking for a Rob Gronkowski Replacement?

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMay 17, 2013

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 30: Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots warms up prior to the game against the Miami Dolphins during the game at Gillette Stadium on December 30, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

In 2011, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had one of the best seasons that a tight end ever has, catching 90 passes for 1,327 yards and an eye-popping 17 touchdowns.

However, that season ended with an ankle injury that required surgery. The 2012 campaign was cut short was a broken forearm. And now, with questions swirling around both that arm injury and Gronkowski's balky back, it's looking more and more like that 2011 season may be the best we ever see from "Gronk."

The news already wasn't especially good where Gronkowski's injured forearm was concerned. As James Walker of ESPN reports, Gronkowski is now set for a fourth operation on the arm to clean out an infection. Gronkowski originally injured the arm in Week 11 last year, and re-broke it in the Patriots' playoff victory over the Houston Texans.

Now the news has gotten even worse.

According to Mike Garafalo of USA Today, an anonymous source inside the New England organization indicates that the 24-year-old recently underwent an MRI on his troublesome back and may require surgery on it as well.

Gronkowski missed his final season at Arizona due to back issues, which also caused him to miss the NFL Scouting Combine and fall to the Patriots in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft.

In fact, as Garafalo reports, at the time there was a report that Gronkowski had spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal column), but Gronkowski's agent vehemently denied that claim—and that isn't believed to be the issue here.

That's of little consolation to fans of the Patriots.

When healthy, the New England duo of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, a pair of athletic pass-catchers at tight end who are helping to redefine how the position is played in the NFL.

Since the emergence of that duo and Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints, teams across the NFL have been scrambling to find the "next" Gronkowski.

The Patriots may want to join them, as it just might be time to start looking for an insurance policy of sorts.

The reason is simple.

As talented as Gronkowski and Hernandez are, they just can't seem to stay on the field. Hernandez has yet to play a 16-game slate in three seasons, and now Gronkowski could be on the mend well into the summer.

The Patriots do have something of a fallback plan in Jake Ballard. The third-year pro started 13 games for the New York Giants in 2011, hauling in 38 passes for 604 yards and four touchdowns.

With that said, Ballard is no Gronkowski, and the 25-year-old has durability concerns of his own after missing the entire 2012 season with a torn ACL.

It's also not like the Patriots can just grab another Gronk off the rack. If tight ends like Gronkowski grew on trees, the rest of the league would have picked that tree clean by now.

Still, it's reaching a point where the Patriots seriously need to consider looking for a potential replacement option, or at least a player cut from a similar mold who can step in if needed without the Patriots having to make drastic changes to their play-calling.

As talented as Gronkowski and Hernandez are, they aren't much good to the Patriots watching from the sidelines, and the reality is one or the other (if not both) are doing just that as often as not lately.

Mind you, this isn't to say that it's Chicken Little time, or that the Patriots should start freaking out. As of today, there's no indication that Gronkowski won't be available to catch passes from Tom Brady in Week 1.

However, just because the sky isn't falling doesn't mean you shouldn't invest in an umbrella, and the more questions that stack up around Gronkowski's health, the more sense it makes for the Patriots to have a long-term Plan B in order.