FOXBORO -- No one can give the Patriots what Rob Gronkowski gives them. That much is obvious. But if they could get Chris Hogan back in the lineup, that might lessen the impact of playing without their suspended tight end down in Miami on Monday night.
Hogan participated in the team's fully-padded practice inside the Empower Field House on Wednesday. It was his first on-the-field session with his teammates since suffering a shoulder injury against the Chargers in Week 8.
While it's unclear as to whether or not he'll be healthy enough to play against the Dolphins, he was clearly pleased that he was able to finally get back to work.
"It was like a first day of school for me, to get back out on the field," he said. "I was excited to be out there. The competitor in me wants to be out there no matter what. I'm just taking it day-by-day, trying to get better and hopefully put myself in a position where I can be back on the field with these guys."
In Hogan's absence, the Patriots have turned to Phillip Dorsett in three-receiver sets. Though Dorsett has chipped in with a handful of effective down-the-field blocks, he's played 168 snaps since the bye and has just three targets. Should Hogan be able to return, Tom Brady would suddenly have one of his more dependable options available to him again in the passing game.
Hogan would also provide a sneaky-effective red-zone target with Gronkowski out.
Even after missing the last four games, Hogan is top 20 in the NFL in terms of red-zone touchdowns. His four receiving scores inside the 20-yard line are tied for 18th in the league with Kansas City's Travis Kelce and one more than San Diego's Keenan Allen, New Orleans' Michael Thomas and Denver's Demaryius Thomas.
And even with a quarter of the season lost to injury, Hogan is still in the top 30 in terms of red-zone targets. The 11 passes he's seen in that area are more than Philadelphia's Alshon Jeffery (10), Oakland's Amari Cooper (9) and Denver's Emmanuel Sanders (8).
"Chris has got good length," Bill Belichick said earlier this season when asked about Hogan's red-zone productivity. "He catches the ball well. He catches away from his body, which a lot of passes in the red area, that's what you have to do because the coverage is tight. The quarterback throws it to where the defender can't get it, and the receiver has to extend to make the play. Good hands, being able to separate and good height definitely helps down there."
Before getting hurt, the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder was on pace for career highs in catches, yards and touchdowns, and he was particularly busy in the one game Gronkowski missed this season due to a leg injury. In Week 5 against the Bucs, Hogan was targeted a season-high 11 times and caught a season-high 8 passes for 74 yards and a touchdown.
It's not certain Hogan will be able to play. But if he's a go, his presence in the lineup could go a long way in terms of helping to fill created by Gronkowski's suspension.