Jimmy Garoppolo’s first true NFL test just got a whole lot more difficult.
The New England Patriots quarterback, who’s set to start the first regular-season game of his career Sunday night against the Arizona Cardinals, now will be forced to do so without his starting left tackle (Nate Solder), a player who likely would have started at right guard if healthy (Jonathan Cooper) and arguably the league’s most dangerous offensive threat (Rob Gronkowski).
Solder, Cooper and Gronkowski all officially have been ruled out for Sunday’s season opener, further hamstringing a Patriots offense that already was without suspended superstar signal-caller Tom Brady.
How will these developments change New England’s game plan against an Arizona defense that ranked second in takeaways and fifth in yards allowed last season?
Well, first off, we can expect to see much more Martellus Bennett, who slides into the role of No. 1 tight end in Gronkowski’s absence. Bennett caught seven passes for 62 yards in the preseason and led all NFL tight ends in receptions just two seasons ago. Fellow tight ends A.J. Derby and Clay Harbor likely will see their roles increase, as well.
Also keep an eye on another Patriots newcomer, Chris Hogan, who seemed to develop a good rapport with Garoppolo during the exhibition schedule and has a good chance to start as New England’s No. 2 wide receiver behind Julian Edelman. Hogan played in the final three preseason games, catching 12 balls for 137 yards with a touchdown.
Things get a little more complicated on the offensive line. Either LaAdrian Waddle or Cameron Fleming should replace Solder at left tackle, and Shaq Mason and Ted Karras are the two candidates to start at right guard.
Waddle served as the Patriots’ second-team left tackle for much of the summer, but Fleming was first off the bench when Solder went down during last Thursday’s preseason finale against the New York Giants. The Patriots also could choose to flip Marcus Cannon to the left side and have Waddle/Fleming start on the right.
As for Mason, he was projected as the Pats’ starting right guard in camp but broke his right hand last month and wore a cast on it during practice this week. If he can’t go, Karras, a sixth-round draft pick, would be the guy, meaning the Patriots would begin the season with rookies (Karras and Joe Thuney) starting at both guard positions.
Cooper’s absence also makes Josh Kline’s release all the more puzzling. Were the Patriots really so unhappy with him that they’d rather enter Week 1 with an untested rookie and a guy with a busted hand as their right guard options? Not to mention the risk of injury to David Andrews, as Kline had been the team’s backup center since Bryan Stork was cut a few weeks earlier.
Simply put: Garoppolo will have his work cut out for him this Sunday.
Thumbnail photo via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports Images