For Patriots fans, the seemingly endless lull in between last season’s ignominious end and this season’s anticipated beginning has been marked by long refrains of bad news, interrupted only briefly by positive notes. And the news regarding the Patriots receiving corps has been a microcosm of their offseason as a whole. Departures of Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Danny Woodhead, and Deion Branch, coupled with the Aaron Hernandez murder investigation, have all resulted in a seriously depleted group of targets for Tom Brady.

Here’s a quick look at the Patriots top receivers from last season (ordered by number of reception in 2012):

No. Age Pos G GS Att Yds TD Lng Y/A Y/G A/G Rec ? Yds Y/R TD Lng R/G Y/G YScm
83 Wes Welker* 31 WR 16 12 2 20 0 11 10.0 1.3 0.1 118 1354 11.5 6 59 7.4 84.6 1374
85 Brandon Lloyd 31 WR 16 15 0 0 0 0 0.0 0.0 74 911 12.3 4 53 4.6 56.9 911
87 Rob Gronkowski* 23 TE 11 11 0 0 0 0 0.0 0.0 55 790 14.4 11 41 5.0 71.8 790
81 Aaron Hernandez 23 rb/TE 10 10 1 5 0 5 5.0 0.5 0.1 51 483 9.5 5 31 5.1 48.3 488
39 Danny Woodhead 27 rb 16 2 76 301 4 19 4.0 18.8 4.8 40 446 11.2 3 25 2.5 27.9 747
11 Julian Edelman 26 wr 9 3 4 45 0 47 11.3 5.0 0.4 21 235 11.2 3 56 2.3 26.1 280
84 Deion Branch 33 wr 10 4 0 0 0 0 0.0 0.0 16 145 9.1 0 25 1.6 14.5 145
34 Shane Vereen 23 rb 13 1 62 251 3 16 4.0 19.3 4.8 8 149 18.6 1 83 0.6 11.5 400
22 Stevan Ridley 23 RB 16 11 290 1263 12 41 4.4 78.9 18.1 6 51 8.5 0 20 0.4 3.2 1314
47 Michael Hoomanawanui 24 rb/te 14 6 0 0 0 0 0.0 0.0 5 109 21.8 0 41 0.4 7.8 109
86 Daniel Fells 29 te/wr 13 4 0 0 0 0 0.0 0.0 4 85 21.3 0 35 0.3 6.5 85
38 Brandon Bolden 22 10 0 56 274 2 27 4.9 27.4 5.6 2 11 5.5 0 11 0.2 1.1 285
19 Donte Stallworth 32 1 0 0 0 0 0 0.0 0.0 1 63 63.0 1 63 1.0 63.0 63
82 Kellen Winslow Jr. 29 1 0 0 0 0 0 0.0 0.0 1 12 12.0 0 12 1.0 12.0 12

Graph via Pro Football Reference

Yet despite five of the top seven receivers no longer being with the team, arguably the greatest loss to Brady will be the injury(s) of tight end Rob Gronkowski. The 6’7″ touchdown machine was out for large tracts of last season, and Gronkowski’s absence was literally a massive hole in the Patriots’ game plan. This year, he will likely miss time again due to offseason surgery on both his wrist and back.

As recently as last week, the prospect of Gronk being back in the starting lineup for week one (or even week two) seemed non-existent.

Over the long weekend though, the rumor-mill accelerated to warp-speed when Gronkowski appeared at practice in full-pads.

Since then, things have calmed down a little bit. Nonetheless, the euphoria over Gronk’s potentially quick return should be tempered with caution. He’s had so many injuries (and surgeries) in the last five years, that I believe New England should slowdown Gronkowski’s return. To be completely honest, he shouldn’t play a down until November, actually.

Here’s why:

The playoffs are in January and February, not September and October

Fans (and occasionally coaches) can get carried away in the harsh pressure of the moment. While I certainly do not think Bill Belichick will ever get carried away in circumstances like this, it is worth noting that a healthy Gronk is infinitely more valuable for the playoffs than random regular season games in the first half of the season. Even if he’s 100 percent ready to go, why rush? Remember, they tried this before, and it resulted in him getting re-injured almost immediately again.

The obvious rebuttal to this is something like: “Without all of the receivers that they lost, the Patriots might not make the playoffs with Gronkowski willingly not being played.”

And part of me agrees, except that…

No one else in the Patriots’ division is going to beat them over the first eight games even without Gronkowski

Look around the AFC East? Does anyone see the ’85 Bears coming to get New England? I don’t think so. The Jets have arguably the worst skill position players in the league. The Bills have a rookie quarterback (who is battling injuries himself), and an offensive line that’s questionable. And the Dolphins could be a decent team, but lack any true semblance of a running game.

And even if the competition did pose a serious threat, there isn’t a foreseeable scenario where the Patriots (minus Gronk) would drop so far out of it that they couldn’t catch up in the second half of the year. In fact, given the performance of the offense over a large portion of the preseason, there is hope that the Patriots can still lead their division with Gronk out. Why not rest him if you don’t need him?

Countering this line of thought, an argument would be that “openly admitting to being willing to sacrifice regular season wins jeopardizes the chances for home field advantage, does it not?”

To this I say…

Home field advantage doesn’t matter

The last three Super Bowl champions, and several other recent Super Bowl winners or runners-up all were wild card teams. While having home field advantage is clearly advantageous, I’d argue that it’s not so critical to postseason success that it requires Gronk to rush back onto the field to achieve it. The truth is, the “hot team” has proven more deadly in the playoffs over the last few years, much more so than the teams that are well-rested. Momentum has become the coveted commodity.

Thinking over the long term

This is a line of thought that receives surprisingly little attention when Gronkowski’s status is discussed. In part, most fans recognize the underlying reality that Tom Brady is 36-years-old and will only be around for a few more seasons at most. Still, it’s not like this is his last year. Why is Gronk’s long term future not being thought of more? Why not hold him out until its beyond a shadow of doubt that he not only can play, but will be ready for a long career?