"Day-to-day" has reached its final day. Rob Gronkowski's back—and for once, that phrase isn't talking about a surgery.
After spending much of the offseason and the first six weeks of the 2013 season on the shelf recovering from back and forearm surgeries, the New England Patriots' All-Pro tight end has finally been cleared to suit up on Sunday—just in time for the Patriots' second meeting of the season with the New York Jets.
The long layover has created quite a firestorm of controversy, with reports of a discord in the locker room, a disagreement between the team and Gronkowski's family over his availability, and a botched rehab plan by a team doctor laced with the mystery of his status.
So, what can we reasonably expect from Gronkowski in his first game back?
On one hand, it's tough to imagine him playing every snap. It is, after all, his first game action since Jan. 13—when he played seven snaps against the Houston Texans in the playoffs. It is also his third game since Nov. 18, 2012, when he initially injured his forearm.
Gronkowski has been practicing since the beginning of the regular season, but as we all know, practice speed is a bit different than game speed.
On the other hand, now that he's been practicing for such a long time and has waited so long to get back to 100 percent, the expectation might be that he comes back and plays a full complement of snaps.
That's the first step in measuring his impact on the Patriots offense.
|Patriots tight ends, 2013|
|Zach Sudfeld (waived 10/3)||3||45||0||0||0|
It's fairly easy to identify how Gronkowski helps the Patriots between the lines. Through six games, the Patriots have a combined nine catches for 96 yards and a touchdown from their tight ends, Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan.
Without Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the production at the tight end spot has fallen off dramatically from the past three years when they had both in the lineup—the two accounted for 32.1 percent of quarterback Tom Brady's regular-season completions from 2010 to 2012.
Indeed, an offense that was once built around its tight ends will have one of those weapons back this weekend.
The Patriots offense has been focused on the wide receivers lately, but Brady still has done a majority of his damage on passes over the middle of the field. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he is 89-of-133 passing (66.9 percent) for 939 yards (7.1 YPA), five touchdowns and two interceptions when throwing between the numbers.
Gronkowski makes an impact as much more than just a receiver, though. He developed a reputation as one of the better run-blocking tight ends in the NFL.
In his absence, Hoomanawanui has filled the role almost exclusively. He's been in as a run-blocker on 176 snaps, which is on par with most of the offensive linemen (center Ryan Wendell has been a run-blocker on 187 snaps).
If Gronkowski can contribute as a blocker, the Patriots running game could take off. According to PFF, the Patriots ran the ball 68 times off tight ends for 311 yards in 2012; in 2013, they've run the ball 19 times off tight ends and have picked up just 34 yards.
Even if he's not ready to give the Patriots 100 percent of what he used to give them as a blocker, he can still help ease some of their woes.
The one area where Gronkowski's impact may be felt most, and most immediately, is in the red area. The Patriots have the third-worst red-zone offense in the NFL, converting for a touchdown on just 40.9 percent of their possessions inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
|Rob Gronkowski in the red zone since 2010|
That's a huge step back from years past—they converted 65.1 percent of red-zone possessions into touchdowns in 2011 (fourth in the NFL) and 67.5 percent in 2012 (third).
Gronkowski has single-handedly accounted for 29 red-zone touchdowns since entering the NFL as a rookie in 2010; that total is more than any other player, despite Gronkowski's absence of 11 games in that span.
To say Gronkowski's presence will be felt would be an understatement, but it also depends on how much of an opportunity the Patriots give him to make his presence felt in his first game back.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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