As we get closer to the 2013/2014 NFL season, we will discuss the schedule more in depth. But in light of the recent events surrounding Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, it's worth taking a quick look at how this will affect the match up.
Just when Gronkowski started to heal from his arm injury, he was forced to undergo back surgery. This is especially troubling for the tight end, as back injuries are what dropped him in the NFL Draft. Back injuries are notoriously hard to predict and tend to linger. It's unclear at this point if Gronkowski will be ready to start the season, so we may see him practice and play for the first time right before the New England Patriots play the New York Jets in week two. I wouldn't be surprised though if he's still rusty, or even inactive, at that point. They may have him make sure he's healthy to save him for the rest of the season.
Hernandez has been cut from the Patriots, if you hadn't heard already, so he certainly won't be playing for the team when the Jets meet them in early September. How would the loss of both affect the matchup?
Well, let's consider first who the Patriots have left. Currently, they have Michael Hoomanawanui, Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells, Zach Sudfeld, and Brandon Ford. Jake Ballard is probably the most likely Gronkowski "replacement," as a good blocking tight end. Of course, he is nowhere near as elite as Gronkowski, so he would (obviously) be a significant downgrade.
It's a little more unclear about who exactly will replace Hernandez. Some analysts believe the Patriots will move RB Shane Vereen into more of the "Joker"-type role Hernandez played. That means he can be lined up out wide, in the slot, in the backfield, etc., just like Hernandez. Obviously, he'd be a downgrade, but I don't think it's as big a change as it is from Gronkowski to Ballard. Interestingly, some analysts believe the Patriots will transform into a more Power-O offense with a heavier reliance on Vereen and Stevan Ridley, but that's another issue for another day.
Naturally, the Patriots are weaker without Gronkowski and Hernandez. If Gronkowski can play though, I don't believe they will suffer that significant a drop off from last year, especially with Tom Brady throwing the ball. If Danny Amendola can provide 80% of what Wes Welker provided (which I think is a fair assumption), and Gronkowski can heal quickly, they'll still be a formidable challenger. If Amendola struggles or Gronkowski is out for any significant amount of time, the chances of another team winning the AFC East will dramatically rise.