The Patriots have been practicing and playing preseason games for the past three weeks; all the while, tight end Rob Gronkowski has watched from the sideline.
That won't change anytime soon if a recent report from ESPN's Adam Schefter is any indication.
It is “not realistic” to expect Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski to be ready to play regular-season opener at Buffalo, per source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) August 19, 2013
It remains to be seen whether he will be on the roster for Week 1, or if he will begin the season on the physically unable to perform list, which will keep him off the roster until at least Week 7. Regardless, it appears the Patriots will be without their All-Pro tight end for some unidentified period of time.
The Patriots have been without Gronkowski since the start of training camp, and have been preparing for this exact situation. In case you haven't heard, tight end Zach Sudfeld has emerged in practices and in games, and looks like a lock to be the top tight end when the Patriots take the field against the Bills.
At 6'7" and 260 pounds, Sudfeld has almost exactly the same frame as Gronkowski, who weighs the same and stands an inch shorter.
He put his size on display in catching a two-point conversion in the back of the end zone on a high pass from quarterback Tom Brady. It was a pattern we've seen Gronkowski run in the red zone before, on a post toward the back corner of the end zone.
The catch, to add a word to the English dictionary, was "Gronkesque."
Sudfeld gives Brady a solid target in the red zone, and even flashed some ability as an open-field runner with his 22-yard catch against the Eagles. At this stage, though, Sudfeld's skill set more closely resembles Aaron Hernandez than Gronkowski.
Ryan Mallett threw to Sudfeld (circled in yellow) in the flat on a bootleg, and the tight end did the rest.
He caught the ball, walled off the defender and broke the tackle, while running down the sideline and
Replacing Gronkowski is about much more than just catching passes. Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui both did a significant amount of run-blocking in 2012, with each participating in over 60 percent of their snaps as a blocker.
Fells was the better overall blocking tight end of the two, especially in run-blocking situations.
Let's not forget about Jake Ballard, who was stashed on injured reserve all of 2012 and is now finally healthy and ready to play.
"Jake’s been pretty consistent all through camp," head coach Bill Belichick said Monday. "He’s been dependable on a day-to-day basis. He’s got some experience. Big guy, long, he’s got good blocking skill. He’s done a good job in the passing game. I think with him, it’s just keeping it day by day."
His role in the past has been that of a hybrid tight end, similar to Gronkowski. Ballard was regarded before training camp as the player most likely to fill Gronkowski's role, but Sudfeld's emergence catching passes from Tom Brady in training camp has led to the rookie leading the charge.
So, it seems the Patriots have more than enough options to compensate for Gronkowski's blocking abilities, while the growing legend of Sudfeld could see its most important chapter yet on September 8.
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