What to do with Gronkowski, Hernandez, & the Patriots’ Tight End Situation?

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A very tumultuous off-season filled with new faces and plenty of injuries continues to become more and more interesting for the New England Patriots with each passing day. The same day (Tuesday) we were anxiously awaiting news about Rob Gronkowski and his impeding surgery, news broke that Aaron Hernandez was embroiled in a homicide case that involved a few cohorts of his. The news continues to get worse by the day for Hernandez, and this story is by no means a finished product.

While legal battles and homicide cases are nothing to gloss over, we’re here to talk fantasy impact and how these new developments affect the Patriots’ historically potent offensive scheme. Gronkowski’s news was far more positive, as surgeon Dr. Robert Watkins released a statement saying the surgery went very well and he expects Gronk to make a full recovery. While some very optimistic reports stated that Gronk has a shot at being ready sometime during training camp, I think the more realistic expectation would be for him to have a 50/50 chance of starting at tight end Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills. According to NFL.com’s Ian Rappaport, Gronkowski will begin training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, meaning he can’t take the field with his teammates to start training camp.

What surgery did Gronkowski have in particular? The procedure that was done is called a Microscopic Lumbar Discectomy, which is the common surgical technique that is done in order to repair a herniated disc, which Gronk has had issues with in the past. The procedure involves identifying the level of herniation, removing the portion of the disc and/or any bony fragments/ligaments that may be contributing to the impingement on the nerve root in order to provide space for the nerve root to move freely. Following surgery, the main objectives will be to protect the surgical site, stabilize the core, improve upon any muscle length deficits, and regain strength and stability of the trunk and lower extremities. By all accounts, the surgery went well and a full recovery is expected. When exactly? That remains to be seen, but we’ll know more as we get closer and closer to training camp.

Hernandez’s situation is a bit more dire, but it really has nothing to do with injury concerns. Hernandez did have a minor arthroscopic procedure done early in the off-season to clean up his shoulder joint, but reports are not specific about exactly what procedure was done. Regardless, it appears this was just a general debris clean up of the shoulder joint due to normal wear and tear that many football players go through. The uncertainty in Hernandez’s case are the recent reports that leaked out Tuesday following a search of his house by police that night, done in relation to a body found one mile away from his home in a car that was rented under his name. This search comes on the heels of a recent lawsuit filed against Hernandez by a Florida man who claims was shot in the face by Hernandez. When you consider how uncommon it is to hear of any Patriot in the news for legal reasons, this represents a huge dilemma for the Patriots that I’m sure they’re monitoring closely.

The real question now is, What do you do if you’re considering drafting either of these guys in the upcoming months? In Gronk’s case, the big thing to watch for is if he gets placed on the PUP list for the regular season, which would require him to miss the first six weeks of the season. If that happens, his value takes an obvious hit, but he also presents nice value for the last ten weeks of the season as he should be more than healthy and ready to get back on the field by that time. Would you rather have ten elite weeks or sixteen weeks of uncertainty? Keep that in mind.

With Hernandez, it’s not uncommon for the NFL to issue a suspension for off-the-field problems, so there is a possibility that Hernandez misses time even if he is exonerated from all charges (if any charges are actually filed). Injury-wise, there are no concerns here, and I think we’ll know about a possible suspension with plenty of time prior to the start of the season. Hernandez is a still a bonafide TE1 if these legal issues are a thing of the past, regardless of whether he is suspended or not.

In a worst case scenario for the Patriots, what do they do if Hernandez suspended for around four games and Gronkowski misses six games on the PUP list? The next man in line is clearly Jake Ballard, who had a solid first season with the New York Giants during their 2011 Super Bowl winning season before tearing his ACL in the championship game. With sixteen months of rehabilitation under his belt, expect him to be fully healthy and a potentially big contributor for the Pats this season. He is a solid route runner and an above-average blocker, which means he can be on the field all three downs. He could become a nice security blanket across the middle of field for QB Tom Brady, which has increasing importance now that Wes Welker is in Denver.

At the end of the day, both Hernandez and Gronkowski SHOULD be present for the majority of the season, so reports of doomsday across New England may be premature. While both of their values take a hit, this could present amazing buy low value for opportunistic fantasy owners. And if I’m owning either of those guys, I’d speculatively add Ballard in the later rounds as a handcuff of sorts that will provide solid value while I’m waiting for either guy to be back in the lineup. And if you (or the Patriots) get really desperate, I hear that Tim Tebow guy can catch.

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Ziad Dahdul, PT, DPT

Ziad graduated from the University of Southern California with a doctorate in Physical Therapy. An avid Fantasy Football enthusiast, he brings with him a desire to introduce sports medicine to the reader and help better explain what to expect on the injury side of things. Follow Ziad on Twitter (z_dahdul) for breaking injury news and analysis

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