The New England Patriots are in need of someone to step up at tight end with the devastating knee injury to All-Pro Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski, who has spent more time on the injured reserve than in uniform in the last two years, is now out of the picture for the remainder of New England’s championship run.
In his absence, the Patriots will rely on journeyman tight end Matthew Mulligan to replace Gronkowski’s production. Well, maybe not replace, but at least give them a reliable option in the passing game, especially in the red zone.
Mulligan, who came into the league as an undrafted free agent with the Miami Dolphins in 2008, then spent time with four other teams before joining New England, is a classic tight end. More suited for life in the trenches, he has shown only limited pass-catching talents. That will need to change if the Patriots want to win even one playoff game, let alone three or four.
The New England struggles with their passing game are well known this season. Tom Brady isn’t the same quarterback he once was, and he has been in the process of breaking in rookie wide receivers all year long to mixed results at best. His most reliable receiver, Julian Edelman, can be considered a poor-man’s Wes Welker at best and a practice squad slot receiver at worst.
The Patriots don’t want to see their championship hopes die with the loss of Gronkowski. Bill Belichick has preached the “next man up” mantra to his squad for a decade now, and this will be one of the best tests of that philosophy since Brady went down in 2008 and the Patriots almost made the playoffs with Matt Cassel under center.
Chances are, the Patriots would have either loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship game or to whatever team came into Foxboro riding the momentum of having already upset Peyton Manning and the high-flying Broncos. But if Mulligan can’t step up his game and help the New England faithful forget about the loss of Gronkowski, they won’t even get a chance at either of those two certainties.