In light of All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski’s offseason back surgery, on top of enough arm surgeries to construct him a bionic limb styled after Inspector Gadget, the New England Patriots may find themselves in quite the pickle come September.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported (via Rotoworld) that Gronk will begin training camp on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list, and if he remains on that list to begin the season, he will find himself ineligible for game action until Week 7.
Missing the league’s best tight end is nothing new for the Patriots. They played five games without him last season and still scored the most points in the NFL, so his absence may not be a death knell for the offense, but that was then and this is now.
Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd aren’t around to pick up the slack anymore. Outside of Aaron Hernandez, quarterback Tom Brady will have an entirely new cast of starters trying to reel in his throws, none of whom are proven commodities.
So while I expect great things from newly acquired Danny Amendola and Hernandez can help soften the blow, Brady figures to miss his reliable stud taking on the teeth of the defense more than he did last season.
That’s where undrafted rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld comes in.
Heading into offseason workouts, former New York Giant Jake Ballard seemed poised to slide into that role if things went ill for Gronkowski, which they have. Unfortunately for Ballard, he also succumbed to injury, although not of the surgical variety. He went down with an ankle injury during OTAs, and suddenly the unknown, undrafted rookie was thrust into action with the first-team offense.
Sensing his opportunity, Sudfeld pounced, opening a lot of eyes in the process.
The 6'7", 255-pound rookie from Nevada earned praise via Twitter from Mike Reiss at ESPN Boston.
One lesser-known player who catches the eye: Rookie TE Zach Sudfeld. Seems to take advantage of reps with top TEs out. Private work w/ Brady— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) June 4, 2013
He caught the attention of NESN’s Doug Kyed as well. The recurring theme? Sudfeld looks comfortable putting his incredible size and athleticism to use in the passing game.
He didn’t have many opportunities to showcase those skills at Nevada because he couldn’t stay healthy. He finally made it through a full season in 2012, and the results were impressive: 45 receptions, 598 yards, eight touchdown.
Considering he played in a pistol offense that requires tight ends to take on active roles as blockers and suppresses their numbers—see Davis, Vernon circa 2012—posting those stats was no small feat. In fact, his numbers bear a strong resemblance to what another Patriots tight end posted during his final year of college: 47 receptions, 672 yards, 10 touchdowns.
The second set of stats is obviously better, but considering they belong to Gronkowski himself, they aren’t as superior as one might imagine. To be clear, Sudfeld isn’t the Gronk, but he can do a lot of the same things, albeit not quite as well.
The two are even the same age (24) and also share another far less fortunate similarity with a mutual propensity for injury. Sudfeld missed the equivalent of nearly two full seasons due to injury while at Nevada, and that health risk caused him to go undrafted despite measurables that seem better suited to an early-round selection.
At Nevada’s pro day, NFLDraftScout.com recorded him finishing with a 4.78 40-yard dash, 37” vertical leap, 9’5” broad jump, 4.41 20-yard shuttle and 7.08 three-cone drill.
Again, to be clear, I’m not saying Sudfeld is a second-round talent, but once players enter the NFL, their draft status becomes irrelevant, especially for players like Sudfeld who don’t even have a draft status to fall back on. What he does have are staggering size, uncanny athleticism, surprising agility and steady hands—all traits that helped propel Gronkowski to the pinnacle of his craft.
As a rookie free agent he entered OTAs as an unknown, but as we head toward training camp, Sudfeld looks like a legitimate weapon. With a solid camp and subsequent preseason, he’ll likely earn a spot in Bill Belichick’s tight end rotation and give the Patriots one more reason not to rush Gronkowski back.