With Gronk destined to miss time, the Patriots have a few options

If Rob Gronkowski is going to miss some time for back surgery – quite possibly the first six games of the season depending on how the Patriots play their cards – there has to be some consensus on who does what in his stead.

Luckily, there’s plenty of game tape from 2012 to give us an idea of how the Patriots will handle the loss of their all-pro tight end. There are plenty of new bodies to consider who can be useful substitutes.

Gronkowski led the Patriots last year with 750 snaps as the team’s primary tight end, or “Y.” Aaron Hernandez was right behind him with 723 snaps as the team’s flex tight end. Michael Hoomanawanui (363) and Daniel Fells (338) trailed afterward. Hoomanawanui worked as both a primary and flex tight end. Fells’ role appeared to be solidly as a Y, used mainly in blocking situations.

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While all are still on the roster, the group has swelled. Throw Jake Ballard into the mix after he sat out 2012 with an ACL tear. He started 13 of 14 games he played for the New York Giants in 2011. During organized team activities, he’s been working as the first team Y. Then there’s rookie free agent signee Zach Sudfeld. The Central California native has a bit of a scary health history too, receiving a medical redshirt to play a sixth season at Nevada after going through shoulder, leg, knee, and wrist surgeries while in college. At 6-7, 225 pounds, he’s also deemed to be a Y tight end. Then there’s Clemson product Brandon Ford, who also signed as a rookie free agent. He’s 6-3, 240 pounds and comes with an impressive resume (40 catches for 480 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2012).


The contrast between the rookies has been striking. Sudfeld has stood out by moving well and catching balls thrown his way as he’s taken on more repetitions in practice. He’s rising fast on the depth chart, that’s for sure.
And then there’s James Develin, who is listed as a fullback but worked out with the tight ends on Wednesday. He appears to be competing directly with Hoomanawanui for that vital swing role. Hoomanawanui played fullback in spurts for the Patriots when the team decided to go without one on the roster.
All of this means the Patriots have brought in more than enough people to fill the hole, if only slightly, of the best tight end in the NFL. Ballard certainly appears to fit the bill. But it will be interesting to see how many the team keeps because of Gronkowski’s availability.

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So what’s the Patriots tight end depth chart look like?
The Patriots opened the 2012 season with four tight ends on the roster, but kept as many five as injuries piled up. Here’s a look at how I view the depth chart right now:
Y tight end
Rob Gronkowski
Jake Ballard
Zach Sudfeld*
Daniel Fells
Brandon Ford*
Flex tight end
Aaron Hernandez
Michael Hoomanawanui
James Develin
Now with that stated, the Week 1 roster will certainly be dictated by Gronkowski’s health and whether or not he will be viewed as a candidate for the physically unable to perform list, which would put him out of commission for the first six weeks of the season. Given the reports of Gronkowski’s recovery timeline (12 weeks beginning in mid-June), I happen to think that’s the direction we’re headed. Here’s what I project with Gronkowski out for the final 53:
Y tight end
Jake Ballard
Zach Sudfeld
Flex tight end
Aaron Hernandez
Michael Hoomanawanui
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What’s your opinion?


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Tough guy, through and through
A couple of weeks ago, Patriots guard Logan Mankins was at a fundraiser for North Attleborough youth softball, in which his daughter plays. An argument broke out between two men during the benefit in the background. Whether or not it escalated from an argument, no one wants to confirm. But what we do know is that Mankins’ hulking figure – he stands 6-4 and weighs 310 pounds – halted the disruption in its tracks. Mankins, in his usual fashion of deflecting attention, was coy when asked about the little flare-up on Wednesday.
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Next man up
With linebacker Brandon Spikes taking the opportunity to hang out in Florida, reportedly at Bommarito Performance Systems, Dane Fletcher is taking his snaps with the first team. During Wednesday’s OTAs, we observed Fletcher at the weakside LB, with Jerod Mayo in the middle and Dont’a Hightower on the strong side. Fletcher would love to pick back up the pieces after missing all of 2012.
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Tweet of the week
Julian Edelman was apparently a little terrified of Wednesday night’s surprise thunderstorm. Well, at least humorously so. He evoked the comical scene from the movie “Ted,” where Mark Wahlberg and his life-like Teddy Bear sang the thunder buddy song to overcome their fears of the lightning raining down outside. That’s way too much explanation, but suffice it to say this tweet came at just the right moment.
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Input this
News of Rob Gronkowski’s impending back surgery saw the full spectrum of reaction on Boston.com. He’s “damaged goods” to some and partied too hard for others. Some are ready to move on. Boston.com reader “Jaden” writes:

“No biggie. This team is stacked at tight end. Most people forget about Ballard. He’s got good hands and run blocking skills. The Giants tried to sneak him through waivers because of numbers and the Patriots pounced on him.”

All true. But let’s not get carried away and forget how good Gronkowski is (17 touchdowns in 2011 in 16 starts, 38 touchdowns in three years). Or, according to his agent, how negligible of an effect these injuries will have on his career. He’s only 24.

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What’s coming
– A couple of big events are on the horizon, including Friday’s Tom Brady Football Challenge to kick off Best Buddies weekend. And then next week Saturday on June 8, Zoltan Mesko’s Zolioke will be taking place at Royale Nightclub. Both events do a great job of getting the Patriots out and about in town and interacting with fans for good causes.
– More OTAs June 3-4 and June 6-7. If there is one thing we still need to learn before training camp, it’s whether even a third of the team’s rookie free agents have a shot.
– Mandatory mini-camp is June 11-13. That means Brandon Spikes has to report. Maybe he’ll start tweeting again, too.
– The Patriots open the season on Sunday Sept. 8 in Buffalo. We’re exactly 100 days away from that date.
Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry.