One of the biggest question marks surrounding the Saints vs Patriots matchup: Will New England’s tight end Rob Gronkowski play, after new questions surfaced about his surgically repaired left forearm? And if Gronkowski does take the field, how effective will he be returning from injury? New England says Gronkowski is a game-time decision and officially lists him as questionable.
“I am happy for him if he’s out there. I’ll be excited,” Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said. “I know how it feels to want to be out there and help your team. That’s hard on any player and you never wish for a player not to be playing. If he’s out there playing, I’ll be very happy for him.”
Gronkowski hasn’t played for the Pats since New England was eliminated from the playoffs in January. He’s most recently coming off a back surgery in June, but also battled a broken, then infected, forearm. Gronkowski will likely need some time to get back in top football shape, but his instinct and raw talent could still provide for some costly plays against New Orleans. In 2011, Gronkowski set the single-season record for touchdowns by a tight end, with 17 receiving touchdowns and 18 overall. The Saints have prepared all week for him – just in case.
“You go through the process as if he is playing,” head coach Sean Payton said. “You discuss jersey numbers and when you are running practice plays you try to prepare for what you have seen when he played and not be surprised if he is up. Sometimes if it is an interior lineman, certain positions aren’t as noticeable – where you are trying to match up certain personnel, but with a player like him it is pretty significant.”
As Saints linebacker Junior Gallette notes, the Saints do have as perfect of a cheat sheet as one can get for studying how to be effective against Gronkowski, after going up against Graham all season.
“Clearly, Gronk is one of the better tight ends in the NFL. But you know, the good thing is we face Jimmy every day: his size, his speed, it’s so similar. But really you can’t simulate at practice what you’ll face in a game. He’s a great receiver and means a lot to that offense. Basically, we’re going to have to bow up and try to contain him.”
Saints rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro hopes Gronkowski plays. This emerging defensive star wants his shot at one of the game’s premier players.
“He’s one of the best tight ends in the league,” Vaccaro said. “That’s one of my favorite things to do – matchup and play against the best. So I hope he plays.”
On June 8 of last year Gronkowski signed a six-year, $54 million contract extension, the largest ever for an NFL tight end. Graham may well snag that accolade however when he negotiates his new deal in the coming months.