FOXBORO -- Though we're not quite sure when Rob Gronkowski will return, whenever he does, he will be a significant boost for a passing game in need.
Despite missing 10 regular-season games to injury over the course of the last two seasons, he still has more touchdown catches since 2010 (his rookie season) than anyone in the NFL. (His total of 38 is one more than Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson has compiled in that span.) He set the record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,327 two seasons ago, and last season he led the Patriots in yards per catch with 14.4.
But what he is able to bring to the Patriots running game should not be overlooked.
"He's a hard-nosed guy, he goes in, he sticks his face in there and tries to get the job done," said Patriots running back Brandon Bolden, who as a rookie last year witnessed what Gronkowski could do as a blocker. "As far as blocking goes, he's pretty good at what he does. He creates space. He's big enough and strong enough to move guys out the way. He creates a lot of space."
Not knowing how Gronkowski will react in full-contact situations -- especially with his surgically-repaired forearm -- makes it difficult to say just how effective he'll be as a blocker in the running or passing games, but when fully healthy, he's among the league's best.
In 2011, his ability to handle defenders allowed the Patriots to leave him on the field in all situations. He played in 94.7 percent of Patriots offensive snaps, and he graded out as the second-best blocking tight end in football (behind only then-Cowboy Martellus Bennett), according to Pro Football Focus.
Last season, with Gronkowski able to help set the edge in the running game, the Patriots attempted more rushes (523) than anyone in the NFL other than Seattle (536). In that time, Gronkowski's presence on the field paid clear dividends, especially to Stevan Ridley, who had a breakout year. According to ESPN, Ridley averaged 4.5 yards per carry with Gronkowski was on the field and 4.1 yards per carry with him off of it.
Bolden had one huge game rushing last season with a healthy Gronkowski on the field when he went for 137 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries in Week 4 against Buffalo. Bolden chuckled when asked to describe Gronkowski's ability as a run blocker and how often he saw Gronkowski dominate a defender one-on-one.
"Plenty of times, man," Bolden said, smiling. "Plenty of times."
Even if Gronkowski isn't quite at that level when he returns, his presence at the line of scrimmage will pose a dual threat that the Patriots haven't had through the first five weeks of the season.