FOXBORO -- Tom Brady knows things are going to be different. Yet at the same time, he's been through this before.
Playing without Rob Gronkowski occasionally was part of life for the Patriots over the course of the last decade. But this year, now that Gronkowski has declared himself retired, they go into the season without the prospect of having the all-world tight end for at least some percentage of the year. That hasn't been the case since before Gronkowski was drafted in 2010.
"It's the first time in a long time," Brady said of preparing for a season without Gronkowski. "He was such a great player for our team. I think like any season, things are different, and we're gonna have to adjust differently."
The question is, how will Brady and Josh McDaniels adjust without a player who -- even when he was banged up, as he was for much of last season's championship run -- remained the team's go-to option in the passing game and one of its most dominant run-blockers until he called it quits.
The 2019 Patriots appear to be a group that will once again lean on its running game, with five backs looking like locks for the roster, a fullback, and a mostly-veteran offensive line that has proven it can clear space in critical situations. They also look like a team that has some promising players in the passing game with first-round pick N'Keal Harry and intriguing free-agent pickup Maurice Harris joining the likes of Julian Edelman and Phillip Dorsett.
But at tight end there is no one who looks like he will even sniff replacing the threats that Gronkowski provided on a snap-to-snap basis. Matt LaCosse looks like a good bet to be the team's primary receiving tight end early in the season with Ben Watson suspended. Rookie Ryan Izzo had a quiet week of minicamp but may be able to turn a few more heads when the pads come on for training camp as blocking is his specialty.
Is there a true dual threat, though, who can make the Patriots an unpredictable attack every time they get to the line of scrimmage? That remains to be seen.
"Teams are gonna play us differently without him," Brady said. "We've seen it when he's been on the team so the other guys are getting up to speed. Matt's done a good job. Ben's done a good job. Stephen Anderson has done a good job.
"That's gotta be a position of strength, even if it's not one player but multiple players doing different roles. There was times in my career before that where we've had similar approaches."
The Patriots have typically had more invested at the position during Brady's career. He's right in that, when injuries struck, the offense had to piece together the tight end spot at times. But during Brady's career he's worked extensively with first-round pick Daniel Graham, first-round pick Benjamin Watson, second-round pick Rob Gronkowski, fourth-round pick Aaron Hernandez and second-round pick Martellus Bennett.
LaCosse was undrafted in 2015 and had his best season (24 catches) last year. Izzo was a seventh-rounder in 2018. Anderson began his Patriots tenure last year on their practice squad. Watson, who could end up being the No. 1 option following his suspension, is going to be 39 years old in December.
"He's got one [child] older than me," Brady said of Watson. "He's got 14 years of marriage on me, too. He's a great guy, he's been a great player in this league. You watch him play out here still and he's just got great ability. He's had great years recently, and that's what everyone expects. He's excited to be here and I've always loved being his teammate. It's going to be a good year for him."
This is as talent-strapped as the Patriots have been going into a season at the tight end position in some time, but Brady didn't sound like a guy willing to lower the bar for that group as they broke minicamp on Thursday.
"No one's gonna make any excuses for our offense," he said. "We're gonna do everything we can to be the best we can be, score every time we touch the ball. The tight end position is a big part of our offense and those guys are going to have to do a great job for us."
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