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What are the Patriots options if Rob Gronkowski can't start Week 1?

Posted by Erik Frenz  April 15, 2013 07:00 AM

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The situation around tight end Rob Gronkowski's injured forearm is still up in the air, so it's impossible to say for sure whether he'll be ready to go for Week 1.

Either way, it can't hurt to get familiar with the backup plan.

So who could be asked to step up? What's going to happen if the Patriots are without their top tight end?

More Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui

fells hoomanawanui snap percentages 2.png

Daniel Fells was the primary back-up tight end at the beginning of 2012, and played 47.7 percent of the combined snaps against the Bills and Broncos. He was called upon again in Weeks 12 and 13 following Gronkowski's injury against the Colts. He played 68.2 percent of the snaps in the two games that followed.

Michael Hoomanawanui only played 11 snaps in the first two games of Gronkowski's five-game absence, but was a fixture in the lineup for the final four regular season games as a blocking tight end, and was used sparingly as a receiver. Hoomanawanui got the call with 51 of 67 snaps when Gronkowski went down against the Houston Texans in the playoffs.

As evidenced by their combined nine receptions for 194 yards in 2012, they are not dominant in the receiving game like Gronkowski.

Return of Jake Ballard

After spending the 2012 season on injured reserve with an ACL injury, Ballard should be ready to go for Week 1.

Will he be close to the same player he was for the Giants in 2011? That remains to be seen, but if he is, the Patriots could have someone to help ease them through whatever time frame they'll be without Gronkowski.

ballard 2011 snaps 2.pngBallard was fairly evenly split as a run-blocker and a route-runner in the passing game in 2011.

He isn't an explosive receiver, like Gronkowski is, but he has good hands and knows how to find holes in a defense. The Patriots are also familiar with his ability to make big catches, with a difficult reception over the middle against New England in a Giants win at Gillette Stadium in 2011, and caught the game-winning touchdown in that game as well.

Ballard was also serviceable, but not elite, as a blocking tight end.

He is well-rounded enough to carry out Gronkowski's assignments, though he likely won't be putting up the historic numbers anytime soon, and that's if he's healthy enough to play.

Three-receiver sets?

The Patriots went with a lot of three-receiver sets when without Aaron Hernandez against the Cardinals, the Ravens and the Bills (via ESPN Boston), but when Gronkowski was absent, they stuck with two tight ends.

As pointed out in Fells and Hoomanawanui's snap breakdowns, though, those snaps were primarily in run-blocking situations.

On one hand, putting three wide receivers and Hernandez on the field is like having four receivers on the field, and it also exposes the team's lack of depth at receiver.

Including the playoffs, though, the Patriots came out in the 11 personnel package (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) on 46.3 percent of downs and in the 12 personnel package (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers) on 20.4 percent of downs. With that in mind, it shouldn't come as a shock if we see more of the three receiver sets if Gronkowski misses time, but with so much turnover at the position, they may not be as confident in their receivers as they were last year.

If that's the case, at least they have some proven depth at tight end.

Unless otherwise specified, all statistics courtesy of ProFootballFocus.com.


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About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »

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