The New England Patriots have prepared over a year for this moment.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski is still on the shelf, and according to Adam Schefter of ESPN, it's probably not wise to hold out hope on him being available to the Patriots for Week 1:
It is “not realistic” to expect Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski to be ready to play regular-season opener at Buffalo, per source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) August 19, 2013
For over 12 calendar months, the Patriots have added tight ends to the roster like it's going out of style. It started with them snagging Jake Ballard off waivers from the Giants and continued with the signings of Josh McDaniels proteges Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui. Sprinkle in the undrafted free-agent signings of Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford, and the Patriots have taken plenty of shots at the board.
Now, we just have to see what sticks.
They have missed a couple of times along the way, including the likes of Visanthe Shiancoe and Kellen Winslow, and they already released Ford just a few weeks into training camp. Between Ballard, Fells, Hoomanawanui and Sudfeld, the Patriots have plenty of options, though.
Sudfeld has been getting most of the reps with the first-team offense, and Ballard has been lining up with him in sets that use two tight ends.
As a receiver, Sudfeld has most of the attributes Gronkowski brings to the table. The two are around the same size—6'7" and 6'6", respectively, with each weighing around 260 pounds. Sudfeld has the frame to go up and win jump-ball situations, like he did on the Patriots' two-point conversion against the Buccaneers in Week 2 of the preseason.
In addition to the two-point conversion, Sudfeld has caught three passes for 54 yards and a touchdown in the preseason. His performance in those games has been a carryover from strong practices, during which Sudfeld has consistently made an impact as a receiver.
That being said, Sudfeld's overall skill set is probably closer to that of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was known more for his receiving skills than his blocking. Sudfeld doesn't have quite the short-area quickness of Hernandez, but he makes up for it with his frame.
He's still learning the ins and outs of blocking—and blocking effectively—and while there's plenty of time for him to learn, replacing Gronkowski could be a committee job, meaning it might take more than one person to do it.
The Patriots were more than capable of replacing that skill last year when Fells and Hoomanawanui were the ones getting the snaps. Neither of them caught more than five passes last season, but each of them participated in over 60 percent of their snaps as a blocker.
It's unclear whether all four will make the roster, but either way, it's becoming clearer what the Patriots will do without Gronkowski, and it doesn't look like they'll have any trouble getting by in the meantime.
By the time Gronkowski returns, we could be talking about him as a luxury for the Patriots offense.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or via team news releases.