FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots' offense must reinvent itself in the wake of tight end Rob Gronkowski's retirement, and how it might ultimately look is one of the top storylines surrounding the team.
Even offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is curious to see what unfolds. He's like an artist with a blank canvas right now.
"Nobody's going to replace Rob. So it doesn't matter what we're doing, or who we bring in, that person is not just going to drop into the offense and say, 'OK, I've got his role covered.' That's not going to happen," McDaniels said. "I think what you do is take the best group you can put together, figure out what their strengths are, and try to play to them.
"So at this point, I don't really know. It would be unfair for me to say that, because I haven't really seen many of them out there in our scheme, against a defense, obviously nothing in pads. So I think OTAs and training camp will be big for us this year in terms of evaluating what we have and how we should play. In May, it's tough to say. It's tough to project that."
This is part of what makes the Patriots different compared to some other teams in the NFL.
Take, for example, the Arizona Cardinals under first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury.
The Cardinals' Air Raid offense is expected to feature just one tight end, with almost every snap out of the shotgun. (Kingsbury's 2018 Texas Tech team had 93.6 percent of its dropbacks out of the shotgun, according to ESPN Stats & Information data.) So Arizona has targeted players to fit that system, from the selection of quarterback Kyler Murray at No. 1 overall to drafting receivers Andy Isabella (second round, No. 62) and Hakeem Butler (fourth round, No. 103).
That type of scheme-specific approach can work, but the Patriots have chosen to operate as a unit that reinvents itself on an annual basis.
McDaniels pointed out how in 2007, the Patriots were a three-receiver team that spread the field with packages involving Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth. But four years later, when Gronkowski was paired with Aaron Hernandez as a dynamic duo, the attack morphed more into a two-tight-end look. Then this past season, when the Patriots played their best football down the stretch, the running attack sparkled (often with a lead-blocking fullback).
Part of that was based on matchups against the opposition, but another part of it was playing to the strengths of the team's personnel.
"The biggest thing we try to do with our team, and our offense in particular, is take guys that have a skill and talent and don't try to fit them to what we've done in the past," McDaniels said. "So you have to have enough flexibility and versatility in your system that you can maybe feature the 'X' receiver, or the 'Z' receiver, or the tight end or two tight ends, or the halfback. Whatever style you want to be, it should reflect the talents of your team."
So what will that be in 2019?
The selection of 6-foot-2, 228-pound receiver N'Keal Harry in the first round of the NFL draft -- coupled with free-agent signings of other taller receivers such as Dontrelle Inman (6-3, 205), Demaryius Thomas (6-3, 229) and Maurice Harris (6-3, 200) -- has some speculating that perhaps the Patriots will be going away from the shorter, shiftier pass-catchers who have been staples of their past success (e.g. Troy Brown, Welker and Danny Amendola).
Others look at a deep and talented running-back corps, coupled with an offensive line that was in many ways the strength of the 2018 attack, and wonder if a return to the Corey Dillon-led 2004 rushing-based attack might be in the offing.
McDaniels' response to all the speculation is straightforward: He's as curious as everyone else.
"Right now, we're not really making any of those determinations. Today, and the next so-many months, are about foundation, evaluation, let them rep, see what happens. Is it good enough? Is it not? Do we need to change something? Keep doing it? I don't think we really know the answers about exactly what we're going to look like in September and October yet," he said. "That's for another day down the road. That's why this part of the year is fun."
Specific to Gronkowski, the Patriots signed veteran Benjamin Watson to a one-year deal and he's the odds-on favorite to assume the top spot on the tight-end depth chart. Veteran Austin Seferian-Jenkins will vie for a roster spot, while younger options such as 2018 seventh-round pick Ryan Izzo, free-agent signing Matt LaCosse, Stephen Anderson and Andrew Beck will look to make a name for themselves.
When Gronkowski was part of that group, it was usually about how all the pieces behind him would fit together. This season, there's less certainty.
"Gronk's a great player. We all know that," McDaniels said. "I think our mindset is the same as it is during the course of the season; if you have an injury, you can't sit there and complain about it. Gronk did a lot for us and our job is to try to figure out how to move the ball and score just as many points without him. So that might look different. Maybe some will be the same, I don't know. That's ... to be determined."