Hannable: Even with a limited Rob Gronkowski, Patriots offense still has reason to feel good

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Photo credit Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

FOXBORO — Sunday’s final gamebook against the Vikings had a different look to it. 

Some categories were a little longer than usual and that is because the Patriots had seven different players record carries in the game and nine different players catch passes. This speaks to how deep the Patriots offense is at the moment since they are seemingly full strength for the first time all year.

This is a valuable thing for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

“I just think it speaks to the depth that we have in terms of some of our skill positions and the guys that go in there and they’re doing their job,” he said on a conference call earlier in the week. “They try to do it as well as they can every play. When the ball comes to them, they try to make the most of their opportunities, which is a great feeling offensively when there’s a lot of people contributing to the overall success of the unit. 

“It certainly can make you more difficult to defend, but if some teams force the ball somewhere and somebody ended up with 12 or 13 targets, then that’s one thing. If the ball gets spread around like that, it usually is a good thing also. So I think it says a lot about our guys and how hard they work and how patient they are and they’re ready for their opportunities when they get them and make the most of them and celebrate their teammates’ success when the ball is going somewhere else.”

The nine different players to catch a pass were the most in a game this year and most overall since Week 16 last year against the Bills.

Against Minnesota, for the first time this season, Sony Michel, Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon, Rob Gronkowski and Rex Burkhead were all active in the same game. This is incredibly important, especially considering it’s clear Gronkowski isn’t 100 percent because of his nagging ankle/back injuries.

Gronkowski isn’t generating the attention and double teams like in past years. With the way the offense was earlier in the year that might be a big problem since defenses could then focus its attention on James White, Edelman or Gordon. Now, it’s hard to pick a player to focus on because there are just so many options.

Specifically, the involvement of the running backs has really changed things for the entire offense. 

For starters, they’ve been getting more involved as the years have gone by recently. In 2015, they were only getting 27 percent of the touches, but now are up to 34 percent. Conversely, the tight end position’s production has decreased. In 2014, tight ends got 13 percent of the touches, but this year that number has dropped to 7 percent. (Gronkowski’s injury has a lot to do with it this year, but the trend is certainly worth pointing out.)

While Brady’s weapons are not better than they were a year ago by any means, the number of them available is greater than a year ago.

The Patriots finally have all their running backs active with the return of Burkhead last week and that gives them plenty of options. Michel is the primary every down back with White serving as the passing back. Then, Burkhead can do a little of both, which is what the offense lacked for much of the year. 

Fullback James Develin also deserves to be mentioned as he could potentially be their short-yardage back moving forward following his two touchdown game against the Vikings.

In the passing game Edelman, Gordon, Gronkowski and Chris Hogan are at the top of the depth chart, but then there’s Phillip Dorsett and also Cordarrelle Patterson, who can do a little bit of everything. And then when healthy, Jacob Hollister and Dwayne Allen can play roles as well.

That’s a lot of options available at Brady’s disposal, and according to McDaniels, that is when Brady is at his best.

“We try to be disciplined and read it out each time,” he said. “We have a lot of guys that can make plays in the passing game. Many times, we’re at our best when we just distribute the ball to the right guy and he does his job and gets open and then he does something good with the football. The other night, I thought Tommy did a good job of that.”

Obviously, the Patriots would prefer to have Gronkowski at full strength, but with their depth they are maybe more capable of surviving than ever.