With New England possibly missing its top two receivers against the Saints for New Orleans' home opener Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, it's possible that the Patriots heavily could lean on their all-world tight end, Rob Gronkowski.
Receiver Julian Edelman already is out for the season with a torn ACL, and Danny Amendola (concussion/knee) hasn't practiced this week due to injuries sustained in New England's season-opening loss to Kansas City.
That leaves Gronkowski – a three-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowler – as the Patriots receiver with the most time on task with quarterback Tom Brady. And though Gronkowski is returning from a 2016 season in which he missed eight games due to various injuries, and ultimately ended the season on injured reserve and underwent back surgery, he still is a dangerous weapon for the Patriots. He caught 25 passes for 540 yards and three touchdowns last year.
Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro expects to draw a decent amount of Gronk duty on Sunday, and he's accustomed to those kinds of matchups.
"I practiced against him when we were up there," Vaccaro said. The Saints hosted the Patriots for three days of joint practices when New Orleans had training camp at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va.
"He's one of the best in the league," Vaccaro said. "He's one of the true 'Y' tight ends that can block in the run game and go out for a pass. Big body, big catch radius, great ball skills, tough, physical – I mean, everybody knows. He's going to end up going down as one of the best tight ends to play this game.
"But that's the type of matchup I like. I went against (former Saints All-Pro tight end) Jimmy Graham early in my career here, I've played against a lot of good tight ends. He's obviously probably top three in the league, and I'm excited for the challenge."
Vaccaro and the Saints note that Gronkowski (6 foot 6, 265 pounds) never needs to leave the field because he's as effective in the run game as he is in the pass game.
He had two catches for 33 yards against Kansas City in the season opener, when he primarily was shadowed by Chiefs safety Eric Berry.
"I think the challenge with a guy like him is that he does the two things that are most important: He's definitely a valuable and explosive receiver and he's also just as talented as a blocker," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "And so when he's on the field, it's not like it's a red flag that it's a pass. He plays with a physical nature.
"I think he's a target problem in that he can position himself away from the squeeze of the defender, and he and Tom (Brady) have a good rapport in regard to location of throws. I think you've got to change up the looks and I think you do have to try to disrupt him at times off the line of scrimmage, but they do a good job of moving him around and putting him in different spots."