It's not surprising: Since Gronkowski entered the league in 2010, he has more touchdowns (39) than any other receiver and more than any running back other than Arian Foster or Adrian Peterson. Those 39 TDs are also more than one-third of all New England's passing TDs over that span.
Gronkowski has been sidelined for all of the young 2013 regular season, recovering from the broken arm he suffered against the Indianapolis Colts during the 2012 season and from offseason back surgery. But ESPN.com's Ed Werder reports that there is a 50-50 chance that Gronkowski will be in the lineup when the Patriots play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Gillette Stadium (1 p.m. ET on Fox).
The big question, though, is whether the Patriots should play Gronk at all.
The most obvious reason for starting Gronkowski is, quite simply, they need him. The Patriots are without running back Shane Vereen, who is on in-season injured reserve with a broken wrist; wide receiver Danny Amendola, who is recovering from torn groin muscles; fellow tight end Zach Sudfeld, who has a pulled hamstring; and now, special teams standout Matthew Slater, who also has a broken wrist.
The Patriots, with three rookie receivers (Josh Boyce, Aaron Dobson, and Kenbrell Thompkins) who are still working to build chemistry with Tom Brady, barely escaped the New York Jets, 13–10, in their home opener.
Gronkowski would help immensely in both the running game and the passing game; he is an outstanding blocker and has already earned Brady's trust in the passing game.
Forcing Tampa Bay's defense, which may well be without Dashon Goldson, suspended for one game per ESPN, to account for Gronkowski, even if it's only in the red zone, should help open the field up even further for the rookie receivers.
The other major reason to consider playing Gronkowski this week is that the Patriots face a tough test in Week 4 on the road against the Atlanta Falcons, and it would be much better for Gronkowski to have some reps before that game. Even if the Pats only play him 20 or 30 snaps, that could make a huge difference.
Finally, from an emotional standpoint, a return for Gronk at home would likely prompt a big response from the crowd, which has a reputation as one of the quieter venues in the league.
Just as the most obvious reason for bringing back Gronkowski is the Patriots' clear need to bolster their offense, the biggest disadvantage is the possibility that Gronk isn't 100 percent ready and the danger that that could lead to further injuries.
The Patriots have gone that route once before. In 2007 they activated tight end David Thomas, who had broken his foot in the offseason, off the PUP list during the preseason, despite having what would become a record-setting offense. In his first game back, Thomas broke his foot again and ended up on injured reserve.
According to Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald, the Patriots seem aware of this and want Gronkowski to be "100% comfortable" with playing before they activate him.
The other major risk is that with Gronkowski back Brady will "lock on" to him as he has done with Wes Welker in the past and with Julian Edelman this year, which might hinder the very development that the rookies desperately need.
I expect the Patriots will split things down the middle: Gronkowski will play but nowhere near 100 percent of the snaps. Expect him to play either a few series or when the Patriots near the end zone. But I don't expect the Patriots to use Gronkowski on special teams.