At this time a year ago, the New England Patriots had the most dynamic tight-end combination in football, spearheaded by Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. As recently as a few months ago, New England seemed more secure at the position than any other besides quarterback. Since then, Gronkowski has undergone more surgeries than Frankenstein’s monster, and Hernandez is out of the picture after having been arrested, charged with murder (via Kevin Manahan of USA Today) and subsequently released (via ESPNBoston.com).
Suddenly the position once considered a training-camp afterthought is shaping into a hotly contested competition not just for a roster spot, but for a place in the opening-day starting lineup.
Three veterans—Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui, and Daniel Fells—have head starts out of the gate, simply based on experience. Of the three, the “Hoo Man” probably has the clearest role, thanks to his versatility and ability to impact the running game.
Like Brandon Lloyd, he followed Josh McDaniels from the Rams to the Patriots, and like Lloyd, he underwhelmed in 2012, reeling in just five catches all season.
Nonexistent production in the passing game typically precedes a trip to the NFL’s unemployment line, but not in Hoomanawanui’s case. Known for his run blocking, the fourth-year pro spent significant time lined up in the backfield, making him the closest thing to a fullback on New England’s roster.
The hybrid TE/FB helped pave the way for Stevan Ridley’s breakout campaign and should once again feature as a staple of the Patriots’ rushing attack.
The footage below offers a prime example of what he brings to the table. While playing with the Rams in 2011, Hoomanawanui (No. 86) lined up outside the right tackle in a goal-to-go situation. Not only did the Rams ask him to handle the opposing defensive end one-on-one, but they ran Steven Jackson directly into his lane, effectively trusting the Hoo Man to make the block most critical to the play’s success. He rewarded the Rams’ faith by forcing his man outside and behind the play, giving Jackson a wide-open lane to follow untouched into the end zone.
With an overhauled receiving corps and Gronkowski’s early-season availability in question, the Patriots will need to rely more heavily on their running game this season, making Hoomanawanui more valuable than ever and likely earning him the starting nod in Week 1, if not at tight end then certainly at fullback.
By the same token, Fells stands to gain playing time early in the season as well. Like Hoomanawanui, Fells was used almost exclusively as a blocker in 2012, totaling a meager four receptions. He’s caught as many as 41 passes in a season though, so he certainly has the potential to factor into the passing game.
His greatest contributions, however, will likely come on the ground, as they did during the 2011 season while Fells was with the Denver Broncos. He started 15 games for the Tebow-led Broncos and caught just 19 passes, but his prowess as a run-blocker helped them lead the NFL in rushing.
He and Hoomanawanui started four and five games, respectively, for the Patriots last season, and since they bring many of the same qualities to the field, look for them to once again operate in a timeshare scenario. A consistent training camp could vault either one into the Week 1 starting lineup, but beyond that, expect their playing time to vary each week based on performance and matchups.
Of course, the Patriots aren’t the ground-and-pound New York Jets, and with Tom Brady at the helm, they will continue attacking teams through the air as well. To that point, former New York Giant Jake Ballard will have every opportunity to earn the lion’s share of receptions at the position, at least until Gronk is healthy.
Ballard isn’t the punishing blocker Fells and Hoomanawanui are, and he certainly doesn’t have Gronkowski’s receiving skills, but he represents a happy medium and the early favorite to win the role of New England’s pass-catching tight end. Less athletic than Gronkowski, Ballard rumbles and plods more than he explodes or cuts, but at 6’6” and 275 pounds, he doesn’t need much open space to make plays.
He won’t rack up many yards after the catch since he’s fairly stiff in his lower body and isn’t very agile, but he has reliable hands, which the Patriots sorely need given their dearth of proven options in the passing game. Also to his credit, Ballard seems to recognize his own limits and doesn’t waste much time trying to out-maneuver defenders. Instead, he does an excellent job securing the football and immediately continuing downfield.
Let’s look at a play from 2011 that best typifies what he adds to the Patriots offense. To see him in real time, refer to the video on the right.
It’s a fairly straightforward play, a 10-yard curl to his outside shoulder. Ballard lumbers to the first-down marker before starting to make his cut.
Once he’s 10 yards deep, he cuts outside and back toward the quarterback. It takes him several steps—at least five by my count—to enter and exit his break, which in truth is more of a rounding off than a sharp cut.
The one thing he does remarkably quickly is whip his head around coming out of his break. With his body open to the quarterback, he has no problem making a clean catch and securing the ball.
Football in hand, he makes one more—very efficient this time—change of direction, turning to run straight downfield and pick up extra yards in addition to the first down.
Running north-south is a simple concept, but the allure of making a big play often leads players to make misguided lateral moves rather than taking what’s right in front of them. Ballard makes no such mistake here, and his straight-ahead style will serve him well in an offense that relies on methodical marches downfield rather than explosive highlight-reel outbursts.
The biggest issue facing Ballard is health. Already somewhat limited in terms of fluidity, he must now overcome a torn ACL suffered against the Patriots in the Super Bowl two years ago. If he can prove effective during camp, I expect to see him starting alongside Hoomanawanui in Week 1.
In addition to the veterans vying for playing time, the Patriots also added two undrafted rookies to the mix in Zach Sudfeld from Nevada and Brandon Ford out of Clemson.
Oddly enough, while the rookies have the longest odds of earning a starting nod, the pair of them also gives New England the best chance at mirroring the Gronkowski-Hernandez dynamic. Sudfeld is an astounding 6’7” tall with outstanding blocking skills and above-average hands, while Ford is a nimble converted wide receiver with a closer skill set to that of Hernandez than anyone on the roster.
We’ve all heard the cliché about good blocking tight ends being like extra offensive linemen, but in Sudfeld’s case it’s actually true. At Nevada he played in the pistol offense, which requires tight ends to take on active roles in the running game and in pass protection. The video to the right features a wonderfully insightful interview with Sudfeld in which he discusses his pride as a blocker and how playing in Nevada’s offense kept him mentally acute at his position, which is precisely the sort of thing Bill Belichick prizes in his players.
His versatility also undoubtedly drew Belichick to him. A devastating blocker and remarkably athletic pass-catcher given his size, Sudfeld is New England’s best option to replace Gronkowski from a skills standpoint, even if he can’t hope to match Gronk’s production.
Here are a few examples of those skills in action. First, let’s look at Sudfeld’s (No. 44) vaunted blocking ability. Against Texas Tech he manhandles the linebacker at the second level, practically opening a freeway for his running back to coast through.
Here’s another, perhaps even more impressive block by the skyscraping tight end. He looks more like a pulling guard than a tight end as he races across the formation, stonewalling the defender and sealing the hole for his running back to scamper into the end zone.
Of course no video breakdown would be complete without this nugget, which showcases his aforementioned agility and athleticism.
The knock on Sudfeld is durability. He missed the equivalent of two full seasons due to injuries. He’ll need to buck that trend and make it through camp healthy to have any shot at meaningful snaps in 2013, but if he can stay on the field, he looks like a free-agent gem waiting to shine.
Ford, on the other hand, isn’t quite as well rounded, but he brings superb pass-catching ability to a unit that, at least on the surface, appears to be in disarray.
A 2012 All-ACC first-team selection by both the coaches and the media, Ford took over for the departed Dwayne Allen and matched his single-season school record with eight touchdown receptions by a tight end. Overall he tallied 40 receptions for 480 yards and eight touchdowns for Clemson.
A natural receiver and former wideout, Ford probably has the best hands of any Patriots tight end besides Gronkowski. He uses those hands, along with quick feet and great balance, to make highlight-reel plays like this, and this.
Like Sudfeld, Ford faces an uphill battle heading into camp as a rookie free agent, but the Patriots need players to catch Brady’s passes, and if Ford proves up to the task this summer, don’t be surprised to see him earn a spot come fall.