Fantasy football focus: Will Gronkowski be in shape for season's start?
PEABODY, Mass. -- Bill Belichick's mandate about silence on injuries kept Rob Gronkowski from talking over the weekend about his offseason surgeries. But even a heavily-casted arm secured in a black sling and a back not letting him bend over couldn't keep the tight end from hosting a football camp for kids in the Boston area.
"I don't really back out of anything, ever," he said, offering a glimpse of his determination to get healthy. "What would it take for me to not come out here? [If] I'm in like a body bag or something. I don't really miss things."
Gronkowski was under stern command to provide no information on his health when speaking to the media. However, one writer cleverly asked what would Gronkowski say to a kid who wanted to know if he would be out there at the start of the season?
"They obviously want to see us out there playing; they look up to us playing. I [would] tell the kids, 'You'll see me out there again one day,'" Gronkowski said. "That's all. No guarantee answer to them."
It's going to take more than a broken arm and a stiff back to stop him from Gronking, but we are in for a bit of a wait. The Patriots Sept. 8 opener at the Buffalo Bills is clearly in doubt and, even if he is active for kickoff weekend, he won't be himself.
Gronkowski did some light tossing to kids in touch football games and walking around the drills of some 450 camp attendees. However, the most significant sign that he wasn't his strong, athletic self was when a pass landed at his feet and Gronk wouldn't bend over to pick up the ball and toss it back. Instead, he merely pointed at it for his brother Dan to pick up and hand back to him. (If you needed back surgery and were a multimillion-dollar tight end in the NFL, you would have your brother bend over for you, too.) It also took some effort for Gronkowski to get in and out of the folding chair during the kids' photos session.
I fully expected that there would be nothing holding Gronkowski back from being the No. 1 tight end in fantasy. But after seeing him this weekend, I hae some doubt now. He clearly isn't 100 percent and won't be even when he is ultimately cleared to practice again in late August or early September. The microdiscectomy back procedure requires three-month recovery time, and he's scheduled for surgery around June 14. Granted Gronk is no ordinary human, but 12 weeks recovery would take him to Sept. 6, two days before the Pats' season opener.
It won't just be the rehabilitation from the four surgeries on his left forearm or the back operation, either. It is all too easy to forget that Gronkowski, a player built on strength, speed and freakish physicality, has been held out of workouts the entire offseason.
There is certain to be some muscular atrophy that sets in, especially after nearly six weeks of inactivity. Gronkowski might wind up being active for Week 1, but he won't be the same big, fast and strong player who set NFL tight end records right away. It should take weeks, if not months, to get strong from lifting and working out again, which explains why the
If that happens, watch out for a fantasy breakthrough by Aaron Hernandez, and consider picking up Jake Ballard as a sleeper in the late rounds. Hernandez is dealing with his own offseason surgery (shoulder), but he is already well into his rehab, catching passes on the side at OTAs, and should be ready to go for the start of training camp. Hernandez is a top-five fantasy tight end who can rise to No. 1 this season, particularly with Tom Brady's banged-up receiving corps being revamped with the departure of Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd.
Ballard, meanwhile, is expected to run the first-team offense at OTAs this week in Gronkowski's spot. That makes Ballard a potentially huge fantasy value pick late if the Patriots decide Gronk will get six to eight weeks of inseason recovery time on the PUP list.
Hernandez and Ballard should be watched very closely in training camp. The Patriots loved to use the tight end when they had Wes Welker. Without him, there might be even more in the playbook for the tight ends.
It might not be a mere coincidence Gronkowski took over for Welker as the host of the football clinic in Peadbody. The Pats will probably lean on Gronkowski to be Brady's security blanket now for the long term -- yet another reason to be cautious in the early weeks of the season as he recovers. After all, the Pats can win at Buffalo and versus the Jets and Bucs in the first three weeks of the season before traveling to face the Super Bowl-contending Falcons on Sept. 29.
Gronkowski will likely have a large hand in the game plan by the time that game comes around.
In addition to Gronkowski spiking the mic after his final address to the kids, one of the lighter moments over the weekend came when camper Kaden Romaniw of Winthrop, Mass., asked Gronkowski if his hands were really the size of a medium pizza. To which Gronk responded, spreading out his long pass-catching fingers, "Medium pizza right here."
Gronk's hands are indeed as huge as his fantasy potential, so if he slips into Round 5 in fantasy drafts consider it a coup. It might take a few weeks for him to get back in shape and up to his former elite level, but it would take a body bag to keep the tight end from trying.
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