The Patriots lost Rob Gronkowski four days before Thanksgiving when he suffered a broken arm while on extra-point duty late in New England's blowout win over the Colts. Gronk is expected back by the playoffs but now the team has lost another playmaker in wide receiver and punt returner Julian Edelman, who was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday after suffering a broken foot against the Dolphins last week.
And while Edelman will never be mistaken for Gronkowski, either by appearance or by stats, he's an important cog in what the Patriots like to do.
But this is Bill Belichick's team, where there is a premium on roster depth. The Pats re-signed Donte' Stallworth, who was with the team in training camp and 2007 before that. Like Edelman, Stallworth's both a receiver and a returner, though it's not clear what his role will be.
We talked last week about the dearth of wide receivers and now the issue has been exacerbated.
Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd remain atop the depth chart with Matthew Slater and Stallworth behind them. But there are also the tight ends, specifically Aaron Hernandez, and behind him Daniel Fells and Visanthe Shiancoe. Finally, unlike recent seasons, Tom Brady also has a running game to fall back on. Steven Ridley has been a workhorse, rushing for 1,010 yards through 12 games. His backfield partner, Shane Vereen, is also a receiving threat, which the Jets learned on Thanksgiving when Vereen took a swing pass and turned it into a 83-yard touchdown.
So, yes, the Pats can compensate for Edelman's loss but we shouldn't undersell how Edelman's role had continued to grow. Remember earlier this season when there was speculation that he was being groomed to replace Welker. It wasn't true (Welker leads the team with 92 catches; Edelman is sixth with 21), but that doesn't minimize his contributions as both an outlet target for Brady and a special teams terror. Edelman averaged 15.5 yards per punt return, including a 68-yard touchdown.
As for who picks up the special-teams slack, ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss names some likely candidates: Stallworth, obviously; Danny Woodhead (if Edelman was a full-time running back, he'd be Woodhead); Brandon Bolden (the undrafted rookie free agent was playing well before he was lost to a four-game suspension after violating the league's substance-abuse policy); and Aaron Hernandez.
Yep, Aaron Hernandez the tight end.
"If Hernandez had not suffered an ankle injury earlier this season and if fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski weren't currently injured, this one might have some legs," Reiss wrote. "Even though Hernandez showed an ability to return punts in the preseason, it doesn't seem like the team would turn to him on special teams at this juncture. Like Bolden, however, it's a name to keep in mind."
Whatever Belichick decides, we're guessing the Pats will come out the other side none the worse for wear. Because that's what always seems to happen. Some might call it luck, though we like to attribute it to preparation.