The New England Patriots’ devastating tight end duo isn’t looking nearly as formidable right now.
News broke Thursday that Rob Gronkowski, easily the most talented player in the NFL at his position, needs back surgery, which he reportedly will undergo Friday in Los Angeles. The procedure is expected to sideline Gronkowski for eight weeks, per reports, meaning he’s unlikely to play in any game before Super Bowl LI.
With Gronk out, the title of Patriots No. 1 tight end falls to ninth-year pro Martellus Bennett. And while Bennett has impressed both as a pass-catcher and as a blocker in his first season in New England, he, too, is not operating at 100 percent.
Bennett has been a workhorse this season, appearing in all 11 games and playing 78.4 percent of offensive snaps. Among Patriots players, only wide receiver Julian Edelman and the five members of New England’s offensive line have played more.
That workload has taken its toll on the 29-year-old, however. Bennett suffered an ankle injury during a Week 5 win over the Cleveland Browns, then appeared to tweak the same ankle in Sunday’s victory over the New York Jets. Each scare sidelined him for just a few snaps, but he hasn’t been a full participant at practice since before the Cleveland game and has missed practice three times. He’s also been dealing with a shoulder injury for the past two weeks.
If any NFL team is equipped to survive the loss of a player like Gronkowski, it’s the Patriots, whose offensive arsenal is deep and dangerous. But it’s hard to imagine even New England keeping its Super Bowl contender status if Gronkowski and Bennett were to go down. Matt Lengel is the only other tight end on the Patriots’ 53-man roster, and he’s still looking for his first NFL catch.
(Gronkowski’s injury also calls into question the team’s decision to trade AJ Derby, who is averaging 29.3 snaps per game through three games with the Denver Broncos. Derby was a preseason and training camp standout for New England, and a player with his skill set would be valuable in Gronkowski’s absence. But what’s done is done.)
As long as Bennett can remain on the field, the Patriots’ offense should continue to be a force. Malcolm Mitchell’s emergence and Dion Lewis’ return have bolstered New England’s wide receiver and running back units, respectively, and Tom Brady, who’s dealing with an injury of his own, still is arguably the best quarterback in the NFL.
And while Bennett isn’t quite the game-changer that Gronkowski is, he’s supremely confident in his ability to fill the void.
“I’ve been in the league for a long time,” Bennett, who’s caught 42 passes for 540 yards and four touchdowns this season, said after Sunday’s game. “It’s Year 9 for me. I’ve started, and me and (Gronkowski), we’re interchangable. We do a lot of things differently, but at the end of the day, I always come in, and everyone treats me like a starter. They respect me, and nothing changes in the game plan or anything if I’m in or Gronk’s out or anything like that. We just run our offense.”
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images