Hannable: Rob Gronkowski is more important than ever to Patriots

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Photo credit Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

After missing three out of the last four games with nagging ankle and back injuries, all indications are Rob Gronkowski will make his return to the field Sunday afternoon against the Jets.

It appeared the Patriots stayed patient with the All-Pro tight end prior to last week’s bye week to give him as much rest as they could to get him right for the stretch run because he’s so vital to their success the rest of the way.

In fact, Gronkowski may be more important than ever to the Patriots.

Yes, the Patriots have won a Super Bowl without him (Super Bowl LI), but look at who else was on that offense. First off, there was a serviceable tight end behind him on the depth chart in Martellus Bennett. But, also a fully healthy Julian Edelman and receivers Tom Brady trusted like Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell.

Things are a bit different this year.

At tight end there’s just Dwayne Allen, who is reportedly on crutches after the loss to the Titans and has just three catches on the year, and the often-injured Jacob Hollister, who has only been active for four games. 

Then at wide receiver, Edelman is a bit banged up and is really the only receiver Brady appears to trust right now. Chris Hogan’s production is dipped drastically and then behind them on the depth chart are Josh Gordon, who is still seemingly working his way into the offense, and then oft-used Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson.

Brady hasn’t looked like the player everyone is used to seeing with him being well below his standards when it comes to statistics. A major reason why is he doesn’t appear to have the same trust in his targets than he usually does.

This is what makes Gronkowski so important the rest of the way — he’s a pass-catcher Brady can trust.

“He’s a big difference-maker when he’s on the field,” Brady noted Monday on Mut & Callahan, which are words he doesn’t just throw around freely.

Added Brady last week: “I’ve played a lot of football with him and I think I have a lot of trust and confidence and a lot of things have happened over the years. When he’s not there, there’s just a different level with other players. Sometimes we don’t try some things because Gronk’s not in there, sometimes we do. Obviously the more dependable, consistent players you have on the field, the more productive and efficient you’ll be which leads to scoring more points, which leads to better opportunities to win the game, which is ultimately the reason why we’re all here.”

Even if Gronkowski isn’t 100 percent the rest of the way, just his presence on the field is enough because it gives defenses something else to think about. Also, him being at 80 percent is better than most tight end’s 100 percent. It also speaks to what the Patriots have behind him on the pass-catching depth chart.

In recent years, No. 3-4 receivers have included Amendola, Mitchell and Brandon LaFell. Now, it’s Gordon, Dorsett and Patterson. Having players like Amendola, Mitchell and LaFell could help offset the loss of Gronkowski, but that cannot happen this year.

While the Patriots are 2-1 in the games Gronkowski has missed, his absence has really shown up on third down, which comes back to the trust factor.

In the three games he has missed, the Patriots are converting 33 percent (13-for-39) of third downs. For the season, they are at 40 percent. Over the last three weeks, the Patriots are at just 30 percent, the fourth-worst in the league during that timeframe.

Winning big games often times comes down to third-down play and 33 percent isn’t going to cut it.

There is no denying Gronkowski isn’t the same player he once was and can be defended 1-on-1 at times, but still defenses need to pay close attention to him when he’s on field. Without him, defenses can focus on Edelman and James White, forcing Brady to throw to players he seemingly doesn’t trust. 

This has also shown up with Brady when he drops back to pass. When his first read (usually Edelman) is taken away, he’s been getting happy feet and feeling more pressure than is actually there. This has led to some bad throwaways that haven’t been necessary, and also some poor throwing mechanics leading to bad throws.

Yes, New England proved it can win a Super Bowl without Gronkowski before, but that’s simply not happening this year.

The Patriots need him more than ever.