The New England Patriots' collection of injuries in 2013 are well documented, especially on offense. Despite missing their top tight end, top wide receiver and top receiving back, the Pats have been still been able to post a 3-0 record, even though it hasn't always been pretty.
But soon both Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola will return to action, perhaps as soon as Week 4 against the Atlanta Falcons, with Shane Vereen on IR with expected to return sometime after the Week 9 bye. Gronkowski "has a very good chance to play," against Atlanta, while Amendola seems more likely to suit up next week against the Cincinnati Bengals, though he hasn't yet been ruled out for the Falcons game.
How will their imminent returns impact those who have shown progress while filling in for them? Let's take a look.
Return of the Gronk
We must begin with Rob Gronkowski, because without him, the Patriots have essentially been without a legitimate tight end in the first three games of the season. It's been a far departure from the last few seasons when they had arguably the best tight end tandem in the NFL.
Michael Hoomanawanui has been the primary TE, but he's been targeted only five times in three games. There were high hopes for undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld coming out of camp, but he has yet to catch a pass and is averaging just 18 snaps in the two games he's played in.
There's no question, the Pats are just barely scraping by without their monster tight end in the lineup. Gronk's abilities both as a dominant receiver and blocker will provide an instant boost to the entire offense.
Gronkowski is most needed is in the red zone, where the Patriots are currently ranked last in the NFL at just 30.8 percent. No other player had more red-zone touchdowns than Gronk from 2010-2012 (29). Gronk is a huge target and should not only grab his share of touchdown passes but also draw coverage to open things up for other receivers.
The other place Gronkowski should have a big impact is on third down. The Pats offense is currently 13th on third down this season, which isn't horrible, but its 39.6 conversion percentage is a far cry from 2012, when the Patriots led the NFL with a 48.7 third-down conversion percentage.
Who knows if Gronk will be back to his previous All-Pro form upon his return, but given how his strengths are in the areas where the Pats have struggled most, his impact will be immediate.
Amendola Back for AFC Contests
Unlike the much-needed contributions Gronk's return will provide, Danny Amendola's will result in a number of questions and have an interesting trickle-down effect. Amendola stated on Wednesday that he was getting close to 100 percent.
But what will his return mean for receivers Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins?
Julian Edelman is tied for the league-lead with 27 receptions, but was second fiddle to Amendola in the season opener against the Buffalo Bills, when Amendola was targeted 14 times. Edelman was targeted on nine passes.
There should be room for both Edelman and Amendola to play together, but their similarity in styles makes them seems a little redundant. The Pats value slot receivers, but the abilities of Dobson and Thompkins on the outside would be a better complement to Amendola and add another dimension to the offense.
Both Thompkins and Dobson showed improvement in Week 3, but could Amendola's return retard their development? It would seem that Dobson is the most likely to see the biggest decline in snaps, with Thompkins retaining the starting X-receiver spot, as he has since training camp.
The litany of injuries forced the Pats to throw their rookie receivers immediately into the fire, and that experience should pay off down the road, but now both Dobson and Josh Boyce will likely see less game action to gain experience going forward. They'll need to make the most of what could be limited chances.
But the good news is that Amendola's return will only help take some of the focus off of Edelman and give the Pats and Tom Brady two deadly slot receivers with which to work. Thompkins and Dobson should provide a nice complement to Edelman and Amendola, giving the Patriots a balanced four-receiver set.
Amendola should also help on third down, where he had seven third-down receptions against the Bills in Week 1, including three on the final game-winning drive.
Pats Offense About to Take Big Leap
For all the criticism that the Patriots offense has taken over the last three weeks, it's amazing that they've been able to get off to their best start since 2007. Getting back both Amendola and Gronkowski in the coming weeks—and Shane Vereen not too long after that—will soon make this oft-attacked offense without a true tight end threat and a cast of rookie receivers around Julian Edelman a distant memory.
Not many teams could weather the storm of losing their three biggest threats in the passing game, but the Pats have done just that. In the long run, the experience that comes with dealing with such adversity will only make the team more adept at overcoming the tough road required to win a Super Bowl.
Mike Dussault is a Patriots Featured Columnist and also writes and edits PatsPropaganda.com.