While Rob Gronkowski is obviously Tom Brady's biggest target in the passing game and his go-to receiver in big situations, Brady's more valuable target may be a guy who doesn't even start the game at his position.
Tom Brady has spent a good amount of time this season without Rob Gronkowski and it showed. Brady's stats were decidedly un-Brady like and the Pats offense often struggled. Yet, this also coincided with the Pats losing Shane Vereen for over half the season due to a broken wrist he sustained in the first game of the season. What has become clear is that it was the loss of both which severely curtailed Brady's numbers. In fact, Vereen may have been more important than Gronk this year, per NESN.com:
-Tom Brady’s 2013 stats: 15 games, 366-604, 4,221 yards, 60.6%, 6.99 yards per attempt, 24 TDs, 10 INTs, 88 QB rating
-Brady with Vereen: 6.25 games, 191-296, 2,145, 64.5%, 7.2 YPA, 13 TDs, 5 INTs, 93.7 QB rating
-Brady without Vereen: 8.75 games, 171-308, 2,076, 55.5%, 6.7 YPA, 11 TDs, 5 INTs, 81.6 QB rating
-Brady with Gronkowski: 6.5 games, 161-255, 1,937, 63.1%, 7.5 YPA, 11 TDs, 5 INTs, 92.6 QB rating
-Brady without Gronkowski: 8.5 games, 205-349, 2,284, 58.7%, 6.5 YPA, 13 TDs, 5 INTs, 84.7 QB rating
-Brady without Gronkowski and Vereen: 5.5 games, 117-207, 1,300 yards, 56.5%, 6.3 YPA, 6 TDs, 3 INTs, 79 QB rating
-Brady with Gronkowski and Vereen: 3.5 games, 103-154, 1,161 yards, 66.9%, 7.5 YPA, 6 TDs, 3 INTs, 94.1 QB rating
Some of this isn't that surprising. Brady has a higher completion percentage with Vereen to serve as a safety valve, while his yards per attempt goes up by a whole yard with Gronk in the game. With Vereen, Brady does have a higher completion percentage, but he also has more yards, more touchdowns and a slightly higher passer rating, despite the fact that both have played roughly the same amount of games.
Now, both are valuable as evidenced by the last two stats comparing what Brady is like with both in the game versus when neither is available. Brady is a completely different quarterback when they are both out. What has happened over the course of the year is that Vereen has quietly become an extremely critical cog of the offense, especially since Danny Woodhead departed for San Diego over the offseason. Gronk is a huge threat but don't discount #34's ability to make the Patriots offense hum.
Outside of Tom Brady, who is the most critical Patriot in making the offense successful?