Rapid reaction: Gronk's back surgery

News that tight end Rob Gronkowski needs a back surgery, which will take place in mid-to-late June, isn't a surprise. Gronkowski had expected this to be the case, but first needed to ensure the infection in his left forearm had cleared before plans could be made to address his back.

Assuming Gronkowski undergoes a successful surgery (the back surgery was previously described as "minor"), there remains a question of when he might be cleared to play. He isn't expected to be ready for the start of training camp.

Let's break down the timeline.

If Gronkowski undergoes back surgery in mid-June, that would give him about a 12-week window before the team's Sept. 8 season-opener against the Bills in Orchard Park, NY. Is that enough time for Gronkowski to recover and be ready for when the games count? Or do Gronkowski and the Patriots take the long-range view and consider the physically unable to perform list for him, which would sideline him for at least the first six games of the regular season?

These are questions that Gronkowski and the Patriots weren't planning on having to answer at the start of the offseason when Gronkowski talked about having the luxury of time to rehab and prepare himself for 2013.

But now, in part because the infection in his forearm took things on an unexpected turn, the timetable is crunched.

It makes the Patriots' waiver claim of Jake Ballard last year look that much more critical. Ballard (6-6, 275) missed all of last season while recovering from serious knee surgery and he projects as a potential top replacement for Gronkowski alongside starter Aaron Hernandez (recovering from shoulder surgery this offseason). The Patriots also have veterans Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells, so there is some depth at the position.

But there is naturally a dropoff without Gronkowski.

When the offseason began, there was little reason to think the Patriots would have to consider life without Gronkowski at the start of 2013. That is no longer the case, which wasn't the way it was drawn up in the playbook.