Posted: Wed June 5, 2013 5:00PM; Updated: Thu June 6, 2013 3:02PM
Eric Mack
Eric Mack>INSIDE FANTASY FOOTBALL

Fantasy football focus: Will Gronkowski be in shape for season's start?

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Rob Gronkowski
Rob Gronkowski missed five games in 2012 with a broken forearm, and will likely miss the start of '13.
Charles Krupa/AP

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 Boston Globe suggested the Patriots consider opening the season with him on the PUP list.

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.

Other fantasy news from OTAs

Down with JPP? -- Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul reportedly will have back surgery Wednesday, -- some 10 days before Gronk will -- which puts the start of his season in doubt. Because of this, fantasy owners should avoid drafting the Giants defense, which was 31st in total yards allowed last season. JPP is also more of a late-round pick in IDP formats, as opposed to one of the first picks off the board. Outside of the back recovery issues, JPP had just 6.5 sacks last season.

Ball is the Broncos' guy -- It's looking more and more likely that Broncos second-round pick Montee Ball will be the feature back from Day 1. "We are going to count on him in a big way this year," Peyton Manning told the USA Today. "He's a rookie, but coach [John] Fox isn't going to bring him along slowly." Willis McGahee (knee) did not attend OTAs, attending to "personal matters," Knowshon Moreno (knee) hasn't been cleared to practice coming off surgery, and McGahee looks like a candidate to be released. Ball should start over change-of-pace back Ronnie Hillman and could rise into second- or third-round fantasy consideration with a strong preseason.

MJD sliding -- Jones-Drew reportedly got into a fight recently that led to a police investigation, and then he showed up to Jaguars' OTAs out of shape, after missing most of last season with a Lisfranc injury, which can end running backs' careers (see Shaun Alexander). When drafting, owners should not count on MJD as a starter in fantasy at this point, and when drafting, owners might want to take some late-round fliers on backup Justin Forsett and rookie, converted Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.

Browns' Richardson not 100 percent -- A clear sky is blue, water is wet and Trent Richardson has been held out of spring workouts with an injury (a shin issue, to be exact) -- some things never change. He might be ranked in the top 10 among fantasy backs, but picking him there will be dangerous. He always seems to be dealing with some kind of ailment and that 3.6 yards-per-carry average makes him a fantasy option more on volume than anything.

Excitement over Spiller -- If Richardson and C.J. Spiller are on the board, there is no doubt about who you pick. The Bills said this past week that Spiller will get more carries this season in addition to the goal-line work. Fred Jackson (broken leg) is a mere handcuff for Spiller owners now.

Rams running back committee update -- There hasn't been much about the Rams running backs at OTAs outside of Friday's news that Isaiah Pead is suspended for Week 1 of the season. He will be allowed to practice and play in the preseason, but he won't be the Week 1 starter. You have to figure Daryl Richardson and his 4.8 yards per carry is the leading candidate to start, while fifth-round pick Zac Stacy does the short-yardage work. The Rams are expected to include Pead in a three-headed committee, but if history is any indication, coach Jeff Fisher likes to decide on a starter and stick to him. Stay tuned.

Weeden still the Browns' starter -- There were reports Jason Campbell will be given a chance to win the starting quarterback job, but Brandon Weeden took all the first-team reps in OTAs. Even if neither are a true fantasy option in drafts, Josh Gordon owners should breathe a sigh of relief.

Dolphins have their starting running back -- Ryan Tannehill came out and declared Lamar Miller the starting running back heading into training camp, but Daniel Thomas and rookie Mike Gillislee will battle for backup snaps, according to NFL.com. When asked on the NFL Network who the Dolphins starting running back is, Tannehill said, "Lamar Miller right now. He's doing a great job this offseason, really has a great handle on the offense and he's doing a great job protecting." Miller is around the 25th-most intriguing fantasy back to target in drafts this August, and he's even a better pick than Packers rookie Eddie Lacy at this point.

Chargers' Brown back in action -- Vincent Brown missed all of last season with a broken ankle but he has been seen rotating with Malcom Floyd as a starter opposite Danario Alexander at OTAs, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Floyd will be 32 this season, so we should fully expect a healthy Brown to be the Chargers' starter Week 1. Eddie Royal will operate out of the slot.

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