FOXBORO -- One of the more fascinating big-picture storylines of this season for the Patriots is how they've been able to thrive defensively despite losing their top cornerbacks from last year's Super Bowl-winning group.
They threw numbers at the position in training camp, but since then -- largely because of injury -- they have been reduced to two corners with any kind of significant experience: Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan.
They've made it work despite their low numbers at that spot, however, and the team is currently leading the league in terms of points allowed per game (18.2).
How? For weeks now, they've taken from a position of depth (safety) and applied to where they've needed help (corner). Tavon Wilson saw time as the team's No. 3 corner on Monday night against the Bills. Against the Colts in Week 6, Patrick Chung saw time checking wideout TY Hilton. At different points this year, Devin McCourty has moved from his usual spot as the team's single-high safety to take on some cornerback responsibilities himself.
Watching the Patriots apply depth at safety to a cornerback spot in need sparked a question that I asked Bill Belichick at Wednesday's press conference: Given that the team finished Monday's win over the Bills with just two healthy receivers -- Brandon LaFell and Chris Harper -- might New England's coaching staff tap into their depth at tight end to make up for their deficiencies at wideout?
More specifically, might the team deploy Rob Gronkowski -- who has had very good success lined up in the slot and out wide near the boundary -- as a wide receiver more often now that the wideout position needs healthy bodies?
"Sure, it’s a possibility," Belichick said.
Gronkowski is a mismatch on the outside. He's faster than most linebackers, allowing him to run by them when they're in man-to-man coverage. Or he can post up on smaller corners and safeties for shorter completions.
The only problem with lining him up out wide, though, is that the team loses the benefits of having him in the middle of the field as a traditional tight end.
From his spot in-line, he has the whole route tree available to him. He can run left, right or straight up the field. He can also help open up space in the running game. When he's detached from the formation, the number of jobs he's able to perform are reduced.
"It creates a different kind of matchup, and depending on who is covering him, it puts that player in a less comfortable position," Belichick said of putting Gronkowski on the outside. "But the closer you are to the middle of the field the more route options you have. You can go inside or outside, it’s really the same thing at that point when you’re right in the middle and you have a lot more variety in what you can do.
"When you’re outside your route tree, you can’t get to the other half of the field basically unless it’s a long-developing over route or something like that. So your route tree is in more of a confined area.
"I‘m not saying it’s good or bad. It’s just different. I think there are places and advantages to, whether it be a receiver or tight end -- I mean, they’re all receivers: backs, tight ends, receivers -- there are advantages to being outside or somewhere in that slot area or inside, if you will. So it depends on what you’re trying to do, who you’re matched up against, what you’re trying to run."
It may be fun for fans to consider . . . A 6-foot-6, 260-pound full-time wide receiver. (At least until the rest of the position group gets healthy.)
But what makes Gronkowski one of the most dynamic offensive weapons in the league is his versatility. He can line up as a tight end, or as a receiver, or even as a fullback, and threaten an opposing defense. His physical skill set and ability to move from one spot to the next on a play-to-play basis is what makes him so hard to keep track of.
Preventing him from bouncing around formations and keeping him at one spot -- even if it's a spot in need -- might qualify as robbing Peter to pay Paul.