Originally written on NESN.com  |  Last updated 4/7/13

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 02: Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots carries a reception into the endzone past Antrel Rolle of the New York Giants for a first quarter touchdown on September 2, 2010 at the New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
The Patriots currently have seven wide receivers on their roster and five tight ends. Those seven receivers combined for zero receptions with the Patriots last season, while the five tight ends combined for 110. Take away Rob Gronkowski‘s 55 catches, and the tight end’s 55 receptions split between Aaron Hernandez and Daniel Fells still hold a distinct advantage. That’s part of the reason why Patriots fans should be concerned, but not panicking about Gronkowski’s uncertain future due to a fourth surgery on his forearm. The Patriots are stacked with Gronk, and they’ll still be deep at the position without him. Those 110 catches by tight ends currently on the Patriots’ roster doesn’t include Michael Hoomanawanui‘s (I’m always proud of myself when I type that without looking it up) five receptions — because he’s a restricted free agent — nor any catches from Jake Ballard, who should be a key addition to the 2013 active roster. If fact, Ballard is the main reason why New Englanders should step off the cliff over Gronk. Ballard is just one season removed from a 38-catch, 604-yard season with the Giants. The 6-foot-6, 275-pound tight end will immediately come in as the second best blocking tight end on the roster as well — after Gronkowski, of course. If Gronkowski misses any time due to his possibly infected forearm, it means two things: added reps for Ballard and more in-line snaps for Hernandez. Gronkowski’s injury doesn’t make tight end a need (though you should never be surprised if the Patriots draft or sign a tight end — or five), it adds further pressure to solidify the wide receiver position either through free agency or the draft. If Hernandez is taking more snaps at tight end and less at wide receiver, that means the Patriots need a starting caliber wideout across from Amendola to start the season. No offense to free agent acquisitions Donald Jones and Michael Jenkins, or 2012 holdovers Kamar Aikan, Andre Holmes and Jeremy Ebert, but Patriots fans may have reason to overreact if if Matthew Slater or any of those five players are starters Week 1. The most likely scenario is that the Patriots address the wide receiver need in the draft. And it’s likely New England double dips just as they did with defensive end in 2012 (Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette), running back in 2011 (Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen) and tight end in 2010 (Gronkowski and Hernandez). There are plenty of options out there for the Patriots, and they’ve begun to work out some of those players. The Patriots have had contact with DeAndre Hopkins of Clemson, Kenny Stills of Oklahoma and Marquess Wilson of Washington State. It should come as no surprise that all of those players are over 6-foot with impressive athleticism. The possibility still exists that New England could sign restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders to an offer sheet, though very little word of that has come out since the Steeler visited weeks ago. It may make more sense to give up a third-rounder for Sanders since he offers more certainty than a rookie will in that same position. It’s not likely that Gronkowski will miss much time — if any — with his ailing forearm, but if he does, Hernandez and Ballard are as impressive of fill ins as you could find in the NFL. The issue is that sliding Hernandez to tight end on a more permanent basis creates a hole at wide receiver. Filling that need is one thing, but getting that wideout acquainted to the offense is whole other issue. That’s why New England must take a new approach to drafting wide receivers as they have in years past. Tom Brady can’t be given another raw athlete like Chad Jackson, Bethel Johnson or Taylor Price over a polished football player like Hopkins would provide.
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