Eight months after reconstructive surgery to repair his right ACL, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski will play Week 1 against the Miami Dolphins. His role will be limited, but his impact on the field could be tremendous.
There is no question that Gronkowski's presence tips the scales not only for the plays he can make, but the plays he can open up for his teammates. The greater question is, what do we expect from Gronkowski in Week 1?
Based on what took place at Patriots training camp this summer, Gronkowski will likely spend the majority of his playing time running routes and catching passes. He has not missed a practice, but for the first stretch of training camp, he exclusively participated in one-on-one drills against cornerback Darrelle Revis, running routes and catching passes from quarterback Tom Brady.
He made his first appearance in seven-on-seven drills on Aug. 11, and his first 11-on-11 showing was on the final public day of training camp on Aug. 18. He did some light blocking drills all the while, pushing people who were holding blue pads, but never participated on running plays during team drills.
"Definitely not [playing] every single snap," Gronkowski said of his playing time, via Mike Reiss of ESPN, "but just get out there, get my feet wet, whatever coaches have, whatever we game-plan this week will be good."
Gronkowski returned from offseason forearm surgery for the Patriots' matchup against the New York Jets in Week 7 of the 2013 season, and the Patriots similarly eased him back into the game.
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Source: Pro Football Focus
The All-Pro tight end may not be a force as a blocker out of the gate, but the Patriots may not need him to be. Throughout the preseason, they have had offensive tackles line up at tight end in a jumbo package. Mostly, each lineman has strictly served as sixth blocker. We can expect the likes of Josh Kline, Nate Solder (a former tight end) and others to take on that role from time to time.
Gronkowski threatens to make a big impact on this game, even if only as a receiver. The Dolphins' linebackers are not considered among the league's best from a coverage standpoint, and Brady's ability to diagnose a weakness could lead to a big day from Gronkowski.
The Dolphins fall into the same quandary that so many other teams have experienced when trying to figure out how to account for Gronkowski: Their cornerbacks are too small and their linebackers are too slow to cover the 6'6", 265-pound tight end one-on-one.
Dolphins linebackers Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe allowed a total of 81 receptions on 118 throws into their coverage last season (68.6 completion percentage), according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Getting Gronkowski matched up against those linebackers could be a nightmare situation for Miami and a dream for Brady.
Gronkowski could make an impact all over the field, but his presence will be most directly felt in the red zone, where his size makes him nearly impossible to cover.
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Aside from the obvious uptick in efficiency, it's also worth mentioning that the Patriots offense got into the red zone almost as many times in seven games with Gronkowski as it did in nine games without him. Of course, once the offense got into the red zone, the Patriots scored 68.8 percent of the time when Gronkowski was in the lineup—26.4 percentage points higher than without him (42.4 percent).
Not all of those touchdowns were going straight into Gronkowski's hands, but many were impacted by his presence even when he wasn't the recipient of the score.
Running back Shane Vereen can thank Gronkowski for his touchdown catch with 8:06 remaining in the third quarter against the Houston Texans in Week 13. He was almost completely ignored by the Texans defense while three defensive players accounted for Gronkowski in the end zone.
Brady commented on the tight end on WEEI's Dennis and Callahan show on Tuesday morning, via Lee Schechter of ESPN:
Being [Gronkowski's] teammate for the last four years we know what he can bring to the team—what his ability is out there, what he is capable of by not only his own ability but how it helps the other guys out there too. We have a good group of guys, so that if they are going to cover Gronk then we have to throw to the other guys and when he is out there he is obviously a great target.
If Gronkowski could get credit for the plays he helps his teammates make, there would be little doubt that he could follow through on Bleacher Report's prediction that he will be named Comeback Player of the Year.
If Gronkowski plays like his old self, he may not need the extra credit.