By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The entirety of Rob Gronkowski’s Hall of Fame career has fit neatly in the middle of Tom Brady’s. That’s a remarkable statement in and of itself regarding the unheard-of longevity of the Patriots’ quarterback, who is set to enter his age 42 season without the hulking tight end by his side, the first time he’s done so since 2009.
That loss alone is major, and there’s really no way to make up for that type of absence. But taken with the current dearth of depth at both the tight end and wide receiver positions, and the Patriots’ passing game is looking awfully dire.
Of course — of course! — one cannot say such a thing in late March without stating that, well, it’s late March. The season opener is more than five months away. There’s a whole draft to get through in late April. Trades happen. Players on other teams get cut. The picture isn’t complete. We all know that.
Still, if the Patriots are able to cobble together a receiving corps that can hang with some of the best units in the NFL and thus make life easier for the aging quarterback under center? Well, it just might require the most brilliant offseason of Bill Belichick’s life.
Hyperbole? Maybe. But when you really break things down, it’s hard to envision the exact road map for Belichick and Nick Caserio to follow in order to shape up the receiving situation.
With Gronk now opting for a life of shuffleboard and Bingo games, and with Dwayne Allen signing with Miami after getting cut, the Patriots currently have the following tight ends under contract:
Hollister has played in two career NFL games.
Anderson has played in five, catching 36 passes, but zero in zero games last season.
Izzo was drafted last year but spent the season on injured reserve.
LaCosse is the savvy veteran of the group, with his 22 games of NFL experience (and 27 career receptions).
That’s not great. Not great at all.
The Patriots may look to the draft to try to find an impact tight end, much like they did in 2010. That year, rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez ended up accounting for 27.6 percent of the Patriots’ receiving yards and 43.2 percent of the team’s receiving touchdowns. That came just one year after the Patriots didn’t rely nearly as much on tight ends for production in the pass game, and it shows how willing the Patriots have been at times to reshape their offensive philosophy based on personnel — rookies or otherwise.
That being said, we can state here firmly that there won’t be a Rob Gronkowski-level player available in this year’s draft. That’s because there won’t be a Rob Gronkowski-level player available in any draft for the next 20 years. The Patriots decide to find a way to select Noah Fant, or T.J. Hockenson, or Irv Smith Jr., or Jace Sternberger, and the pick may work out well. Still, even with the best tight end prospect, expectations should remain tempered for a rookie.
In free agency, some options exist, but none that shake the earth: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jermaine Gresham, and 2015 Patriots draftee A.J. Derby are available.
Really, the tight end situation is one that can be improved upon, but to expect a significant upgrade at this point of the offseason may be unreasonable.
The picture is better at the receiver position, but still less than ideal.
*Gordon is facing a yet-to-be-determined suspension
Those of us who doubted Edelman’s ability to be an impact player at age 32, coming off a torn ACL and coming off a PED suspension? We will be more hesitant to cast a similar doubt for 2019. But Edelman nevertheless will be 33, and even if he’s capable of replicating his dynamite 2018 season, he will need help.
Dorsett is actually in a spot to take on a larger role. That’s not to say he’s a No. 1 or anything of the sort, but he’s proven that if the ball is thrown in his direction, he can catch it. Gordon was great for 10 weeks last season but few are looking at him as someone the Patriots can necessarily rely on. After that … the cupboards are a bit bare.
The same situation applies here as it does with tight ends. There are some guys available in free agency (can I interest anybody in Dez Bryant?), but nobody who can carry an offense. Trades remain a possible, but trades made by Belichick aren’t often foretold ahead of time by anybody.
In terms of the draft, maybe we see the Patriots break character and select a receiver in the first round. Maybe. They did break from tradition last year, when they picked a running back in the first round for just the second time of the Belichick era and the first time since 2006 (Laurence Maroney), so they could do it again.
The Patriots have never spent a first-round pick on a receiver. They’ve spent a second-round pick on a receiver four times before, to mixed results. Deion Branch in 2002 was a home run-and-a-half. Aaron Dobson in 2013 was a letdown. Chad Jackson in 2006 was a mistake. Bethel Johnson in 2003, well, he had some nice kick returns.
Even if the Patriots do use their first-rounder on a receiver or if they move up to draft one earlier than 32nd overall, it’s still hard to imagine a rookie stepping in to Brady’s and Josh McDaniels’ offense and being a real impact player right out of the shoot. Malcolm Mitchell (fourth round, 2016) rightfully got credit for being the best rookie receiver for the Patriots since Branch, but even then, Mitchell caught 32 passes for 401 yards and four touchdowns. He had just seven receptions for 95 yards and zero touchdowns through Week 10 of the season.
Mitchell was only able to have an impact as a rookie because he was able to develop slowly over the course of the season, thus leading to his strong end to the regular season and his impressive performance in Super Bowl LI.
Rookie receivers just don’t often thrive in the Patriots’ offense, so even if the Patriots do add a J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, an Andy Isabella or a David Sills, the rookie is likely going to need some time to adapt.
So, tough situation at receiver, tougher situation at tight end. What are the Patriots going to do? Should Brady now suddenly cancel his 45-or-bust plans and decide to retire, too? Should the Patriots just forfeit the 2019 season and hope for a better 2020?
Instead, the Patriots are likely to do what they always do. They’re going to play to their strengths.
And their strengths, at this moment in time, are in the running game and on defense.
“Run game” here is a term that should include both running plays and plays that require running backs to catch the ball. Considering James White led the team in targets and receptions last year, that’s something that will likely continue. If Sony Michel can get in some offseason work as a pass catcher, he should be able to improve upon his seven-catch rookie season. Rex Burkhead will be back. James Develin may be poised to catch 30 passes for 50 yards, and maybe Brady has finally learned to throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time. You never know.
And all of those backs will be major contributors on the ground, where the Patriots ranked fifth in yards and tied for fourth in touchdowns last season. In the postseason, they rushed for 162 yards per game and nine touchdowns, leading them to a Super Bowl victory. (By contrast, the Patriots ranked eighth in passing yards and tied for 11th in passing touchdowns). They did that despite Michel missing the preseason and starting the season slow due to injury, and while only getting eight games out of Burkhead.
Aiding them on that championship run was some stout defensive play. The secondary — with Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Jason McCourty — was a unit of strength. Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy at linebacker provided another strength. Trey Flowers, since departed via free agency, was a problem for opposing offenses all year long.
And though the results on the whole weren’t perfect, as evidenced by their 11-5 record, the Patriots managed to mold themselves however necessity demanded through the course of that season. Rather than spit into the wind, the Patriots are more likely to try to harness and build upon their strengths.
With fewer playmakers in pass-catching roles, McDaniels is simply going to have to ask less from that part of the depth chart and more from the backfield. It ended up working last year, and something similar will have to work again in 2019.