FOXBORO, Mass. — Matthew Mulligan is No. 1 on the depth chart in New England.
It’s not even worth asking who could have foreseen this happening in June — early June, that is. The Patriots were once the team that was revolutionizing the tight end position. Now they’re left with Mulligan, Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams.
It’s safe to say the tight end won’t be utilized quite as heavily in Weeks 15 through undecided. And that’s the way things went before Rob Gronkowski came back from forearm and back injuries. But now that Gronkowski has been placed on injured reserve, there’s no “when Gronk gets back.” The offense has to change for good.
It’s not wise to look to the first six weeks of the season to see how the Patriots will move forward without Gronkowski. New England’s personnel has been fluid throughout the year. Shane Vereen wasn’t around then, Danny Amendola was in and out of being inactive, Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins were still dropping the ball — literally — at adjusting to pro speed and Tom Brady did not appear comfortable with the players who were out on the field.
The Patriots can essentially kiss goodbye the idea of a two tight end set, especially in the passing game. And that takes away a load of deception. When New England went with 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends), the opposing team had to decide whether they wanted to utilize an extra defensive back or linebacker (nickel versus “regular”). If they went nickel, the Patriots could go power and run. If they went regular, Gronkowski would likely have a mismatch down the field.
Now the Patriots will be far more transparent, at least when it comes to the tight end position. When New England goes three wide, there’s no fear that a tight end is going to burn a linebacker (unless the newly re-signed D.J. Williams really emerges in the next few weeks). And if Williams is the lone tight end in a three-receiver set, there’s almost no chance the Patriots will run the ball, due to his limited blocking ability.
James Develin can play multiple roles, but he’s not a major threat in the run or passing game. When Develin’s on the field, New England is probably running the ball. When there are three receivers, they’re probably passing.
The most versatile chess piece left is Shane Vereen, but it’s trickier to get creative with a running back than it is with a tight end, especially since Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden aren’t exactly known for their run-blocking skills.
But when Vereen is on the field, he forces the defense to make the same decision they made with Gronkowski. If they go nickel, the Patriots can easily run the ball. When they go regular, Vereen can split out with a mismatch against a linebacker. If the opposing team places a safety on Vereen, that opens up the top of the field more.
Vereen has been playing roughly half the team’s snaps since coming back from a broken wrist. Those opportunities will likely expand for Vereen. And that’s not necessarily at the expense of the other running backs.
Vereen could see the field simultaneously with Ridley, Blount or Bolden. Vereen has been lining up split out wide at receiver more and more and could see his role increase at that position.
Since Gronkowski’s targets likely won’t be going to Mulligan, Hoomanawanui or Williams, that increases the targets for the receivers, as well, especially the rookies. Julian Edelman is still getting the most targets among receivers, but Amendola, Dobson, Thompkin and Boyce’s will be increasing.
Boyce had a solid outing in his first game getting the majority of the team’s offensive snaps. Even after Dobson and Thompkins come back, his role could increase.
It will be key for New England to get Dobson (who was spotted in a walking boot) and Thompkins (who is still walking gingerly on an injured hip) back on the playing field. Without Gronkowski or the two rookies, the Patriots are limited in downfield threats.
It won’t be easy to replace Gronkowski. In fact, it’s impossible. But between Vereen, Dobson, Thompkins, Boyce and the tight ends, his targets will be spread out throughout the offense. Brady will likely continue to rely on Vereen as his safest option out of the backfield and Edelman and Amendola will have some added responsibility in the middle of the field.
This is nothing new for any of these players. Vereen said on Monday that Gronkowski’s injuries earlier in the season do not make this transition to play without him easier. But what Weeks 1 through 6 did do was give valuable reps to players who may not have had them otherwise.