The New England Patriots will remain the preeminent Super Bowl contender so long as Bill Belichick remains the team’s coach and Tom Brady remains the team’s quarterback, but there’s no doubt their dynasty suffered a devastating blow this offseason when tight end Rob Gronkowski decided to retire from football before his age 30 season. While there’s always a chance Gronk could unretire at some point — after all, he did just work out with Brady a few days after joking about a potential return for the playoffs — for the time being, the Patriots will be forced to operate without the greatest tight end in the history of football. 

The Patriots have spent the offseason searching for answers at the position, but have found nothing but endless disappointment. They signed a high-upside tight end in Austin Seferian-Jenkins, but have already cut him. They lured Benjamin Watson out of retirement, but Watson has since been suspended for the first four games of the upcoming season. They tried to trade for Michael Roberts, but their agreement with the Lions fell apart due to a failed physical. We speculated that they could target an impact-now tight end in the draft, but the only two tight ends worthy of a first-round pick were long gone before the Patriots were on the clock. We thought they might trade for Kyle Rudolph, but the Vikings wound up signing him to an extension. As it stands, the Patriots’ tight end group is made up of guys like Matt LaCosse, Stephen Anderson, Ryan Izzo, and Andrew Beck — in addition to Watson, who should play a sizable role when he returns from suspension.

The Patriots can keep on searching for a Gronk replacement at tight end, but they won’t ever find one. Gronk is irreplaceable. 

In his nine-year career, he averaged 68.4 receiving yards and 0.7 touchdowns per game. Consider that Tony Gonzalez, who is also in the greatest tight end ever discussion, averaged 56 receiving yards and 0.4 touchdowns per game in his career. It’s not just about Gronk’s contributions as a pass catcher. He was also a tremendous blocker, capable of serving as an additional offensive lineman in the run game. Even when his production slipped as a receiver as he battled injuries this past season, he was still paving the way for the run-heavy Patriots. So no, the Patriots can’t replace him with one tight end. No other tight end has done what he did for the better part of a decade.

There’s a scene in “Moneyball” where Brad Pitt, playing A’s general manager Billy Beane, is talking about how the team can’t replace Jason Giambi with one player. It’s a little like that, minus the whole Moneyball aspect.

Grady Fuson: You have a lot of experience and wisdom in this room, now you need to have a little bit of faith and let us do the job of replacing Giambi. 
Billy Beane: Is there another first baseman like Giambi?
John Poloni: No, not really.
[…]
Billy Beane: Then what the f— are you talking about, man?

The point being, the Patriots can’t find a player to replace Gronk because there is no one player who can replace Gronk. As Pitt/Beane concludes a little later in the movie, they need to recreate Giambi in the aggregate.

The Patriots can overcome his absence. They’re not doomed. They’re just going to be forced to win in a different way — something they have experience with, by the way. During Gronk’s career, he missed 29 regular-season games, not to mention an entire Super Bowl run.

While his absence slowed down their offense …

… it didn’t really impact their win-loss record.

The Patriots don’t have another dominant tight end to lean on in Gronk’s absence, but what they do have is an embarrassment of riches at the running back position, a top-five offensive line led by an even better coach, a potentially decent receiver group, and of course, the greatest coach and quarterback combination in the history of football.

The running game is key. The Patriots already started to shift away from Gronk as a major weapon in the passing game last season when he began to lose some of his explosiveness, evidenced by his 52.5 yards per game and 9.5 yards per target, both below his career averages. Instead, the Patriots leaned on their running game. As a team, they ranked fifth in rushing yards and ninth in rushing offense DVOA behind an offensive line that ranked third in run blocking, per Football Outsiders. In the playoffs, they averaged 161.7 rushing yards per game. 

Losing Gronk obviously hurts. He was one of the best blocking tight ends in the league. But the Patriots are bringing back most of their offensive line. They did lose left tackle Trent Brown in free agency, but the Patriots survived left tackle Nate Solder‘s departure a year ago just fine. Stepping in at left tackle will be 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn, who lost his entire rookie season to a torn Achilles. Most importantly, heralded offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is still around. Don’t expect the Patriots’ offensive line to regress. It should remain a strength of the team. 

Furthermore, while the Patriots didn’t draft a tight end, they did make tight end Andrew Beck their highest-paid undrafted rookie, according to Ben Volin of The Boston Globe. That could matter. Beck’s strength is his run blocking. It’s almost like the Patriots know what they’re doing.

As long as we’re talking about the tight ends, while Watson’s suspension hurts, once he returns, he should be a key contributor. He’s no Gronk, but he’s still a good tight end at age 38. 

And the Patriots can afford to be without him for a four-game stretch. They still reside in the AFC East — a division that’s occupied by three slowly improving teams that aren’t at all ready to surpass the Patriots in 2019 — which affords them the opportunity to start slowly and still capture the division crown. The Patriots open with games against the Steelers, Dolphins, Jets, and Bills. At the absolute worst, they should go 2-2. They’ll probably start 3-1 or 4-0.

Often times, tight ends operate as a quarterback’s safety valve. In New England, the running backs often take on that role and they do it at a high enough level to be considered legitimate weapons. While Sony Michel should be the team’s primary ballcarrier after a good rookie season, James White should be heavily targeted coming out of the backfield. He’s coming off an 87-catch, 751-yard, and seven-touchdown season as a pass catcher. Behind Michel and White, the Patriots boast awesome depth at the position — most notably Rex Burkhead and rookie Damien Harris. This is a team built to destroy defenses with its running backs. 

They also help Brady, who will turn 42 next month, stay upright and avoid punishment from pass rushers. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Brady held the ball for an average time of 2.61 seconds before releasing the football last season. Only six quarterbacks posted a lower average time to throw. It’s one reason why he’s so difficult to sack. He gets the ball out quickly.

The Patriots don’t have a superstar receiver, but they have a group that could be decent depending on a couple factors. Julian Edelman should remain Brady’s favorite weapon. Phillip Dorsett and Dontrelle Inman aren’t stars, but they’re competent. Don’t be surprised if Maurice Harris breaks out in New England. As he demonstrated throughout his career at Cal and briefly with the Redskins, he has the ability to come down with insane catches downfield. Demaryius Thomas could end up being a magnificent signing when he comes back from his Achilles injury. There’s a chance Josh Gordon could return from his suspension, although at this point his career, he can’t be relied upon to contribute on the football field. He’d be a nice bonus if he can regain his eligibility.

The key in all of this is N’Keal Harry, who the Patriots took with the No. 32 pick. Another area the Patriots will miss Gronk is in the red zone, More broadly speaking, Brady is going to miss throwing to a target that doesn’t even need to be open to be considered open. It’s how they defeated the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. Brady threw one up for grabs and Gronk won the jump ball the way he almost always did throughout his career. 

That’s where Harry could be key. As highlighted by NFL.com Lance Zierlein in his pre-draft scouting report, “Harry’s ability to body-up opponents and win with ball skills is undeniable.” He described him as a “back-shoulder boss.” Oh, and then there’s this: “Teams will love his impact as a run-blocker.” 

In short, the Patriots drafted the perfect receiver they needed to help replace Gronk. Again, the Patriots can’t replace Gronk with just one player. They’re going to need contributions to come from a number of areas.

With Gronk gone, the Patriots’ identity will change. But that process has already started. 

As 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, and three receivers) continues to rise across the NFL, the Patriots used 11 personnel only 58 percent of the time last season, according to Sharp Football Stats. For the sake of comparison, the Rams offense that every other team is trying to mimic used 11 personnel 87 percent of the time. The Patriots used 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end, and two receivers) 28 percent of the time — only the 49ers used it more. The Patriots used 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ends, and one receiver) eight percent of the time — no team used it more. That doesn’t mean 21 and 22 personnel are better personnel groupings than 11 personnel. It just means the Patriots are good at identifying their strengths and using them to their advantage. 

The Patriots’ identity has never been Gronk. The Patriots’ identity has always been shaping their team around the players they have and the unique skillsets they bring to the field. They’re so good at playing to their strengths to help negate their weaknesses. We saw it during Brady’s Deflategate suspension when Josh McDaniels redid the offense for Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett. We saw it this year, when they adopted a run-heavy approach down the stretch. The Patriots always evolve and adapt so that they’re putting their players in the best possible position to succeed. 

That’s their identity. And that’s why they’ll survive Gronk’s absence.

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