The New England Patriots' dual tight end attack has certainly left its mark on the NFL. Teams throughout the league have openly admitted to emulating the Patriots' philosophy of using tight ends to create mismatches over the middle of the field.
Unfortunately, it appears the Patriots themselves will not reap the fruits of their own innovation. With Aaron Hernandez's well-documented saga, it is wholly unclear how the Patriots plan to utilize their tight ends this season. Moreover, Rob Gronkowski's injury status further clouds the immediate future, potentially leaving behind just nine receptions from the Pats' 2012 tight end corps.
Shockingly, the tight end position is now the most unstable unit heading into training camp. Still, that does not mean the position is suddenly devoid of talent or upside, even beyond Gronk. Here is a look at what each of the team's six current tight ends can bring, and a projection of how the competition might play out.
It is painfully ironic how the one sure-thing is also New England's biggest question mark. Gronkowski will obviously be on the roster, but the Patriots will miss his irreplaceable game if he cannot start the season.
Looking back to last season, it's a little frightening what his long-term absence would mean to the new-look Patriot offense. Even including his Week 17 appearance against Miami, Tom Brady's completion percentage was just 58.7 percent, five percent below his career average. For reference, that would have ranked with the likes of Blaine Gabbert and Matt Cassel last year.
Gronkowski's impact as a blocker might be even more significant. After last year's Week 3 game against the Ravens, Luke Hughes of NESN described how Bill Belichick essentially used Gronk as a sixth offensive lineman to combat the Ravens' fierce pass rush, encapsulating his value to the team:
While he wasn't a major part of the passing attack, Gronk still had a big impact on the Patriots' offensive success in Baltimore. Being used as a blocker along the line a lot more than normal, Gronkowski was able to help alleviate some of the pressure on second-year tackle Nate Solder on the left side and keep Brady vertical for much of the second half.
Gronkowski dealt with continuous heat from the likes of Courtney Upshaw, Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis and even Chandler Jones' older brother, Arthur, at times. But he was able to keep the Ravens' rushers at bay, and he made sure Brady didn't have to endure any more than the six QB hits and the pair of sacks the Ravens unloaded.
Indeed, without him, the running game's yards per carry dropped from 4.33 to 4.02. Again, for reference, that first mark would have ranked 12th in the league, whereas the second would have tied for 21st.
Other Patriot tight ends can offer a reasonable facsimile of some aspects of Gronk's game, but no one in the league, let alone in Foxboro, can do everything as well and consistently as Gronkowski. With Hernandez's release, No. 87 is probably the second-most important player on the roster, if he wasn't already.
Veteran Question Marks
Currently, the Patriots have a trio of veteran tight ends with limited (albeit useful) skill sets behind Gronkowski. Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells will likely see more reps than expected now, and it's worth examining how they complement Gronkowski, who will be on the field nearly every snap when healthy.
Of the three, Ballard's physical stature (6'6", 275 pounds) and playing style most overlaps with Gronkowski's, an important consideration for playing time if or when Gronk misses time. Coming out of high school, some scouting reports thought he could be an excellent offensive lineman, a testament to his blocking ability. Per Chris Price of WEEI, Pro Football Focus graded out Ballard at +1.1 in the run game, though that paled in comparison to Gronkowski's +10.9 grade.
Still, it might be Michael Hoomanawanui who actually turns out a better blocker. After poaching the "Hooman" off the Redskins' practice squad, the tight end actually made significant contributions as a blocking tight end and fullback last season.
Looking back at PFF's grades, they had Hoomanawanui as the fifth-best pass-blocking tight end in the league. But Hoomanawanui has never been a pass-catching threat, and Ballard did average an impressive 15.9 yards per catch on 38 receptions in his lone full season.
The most interesting player might be Daniel Fells, who could just as easily work his way into the No. 2 role or off the roster entirely. Despite possessing the most well-rounded skill set of the three, Fells made his way into Belichick's doghouse last year, to the point where he was inactive at season's end.
Nevertheless, he has the playing style most reminiscent of Hernandez, given his receiving ability and versatility along the line of scrimmage. Check out this sequence when Fells was with the Rams, where he lines up as both the Y receiver (on the line) and Z receiver (in the slot):
Fells has the largest contract of the three, based on the three-year deal worth up to $7 million he signed last offseason. That may hurt his chances, given he will have to perform better to justify his salary. But given his history, he also has the best chance of replacing Hernandez's role.
Intriguing Rookie Upside
Beyond the veterans, the Patriots possess two undrafted rookies whose styles eerily resemble Gronk and Hernandez (albeit with much lower ceilings).
Zach Sudfeld, the towering 6’7”, 250 pound rookie out of Nevada, has stood out more than any other tight end in OTAs. Though injury-prone throughout his college career, Sudfeld finally stayed healthy his senior season, putting up solid numbers (45 catches, 598 yards, 8 TDs).
Those eight touchdowns placed Sudfeld third in the Mountain West Conference, a testament to his surprising receiving ability and route-running instincts. While it remains unclear how effective a blocker he could be, his size and athleticism bode well in that regard. Perhaps the most encouraging sign for Sudfeld was when he worked one-on-one with Tom Brady, according to ESPNBoston.com, instead of going through special teams drills, like many of his undrafted counterparts.
The other undrafted tight end, Brandon Ford, has yet to create as big a splash thus far, but based on college evaluations it seems he should be the better receiver of the two. Ford fell behind in offseason work due to an undisclosed injury, and according to Zuri Berry of the Boston Globe, the former Clemson tight end only received limited reps.
Ford had very similar production to Sudfeld his senior year, catching 40 passes for 480 yards and eight touchdowns. When scouting Clemson’s game against Florida State, Nepatriotsdraft.com noted that Ford had potential as a “moveable H-Back/Joker TE,” much like the role Hernandez used to play. It would be a stretch to see Ford on the active roster, but he might be a prospect worth developing on the practice squad.
Potential Free Agent Signings?
As of right now, nothing is on the immediate horizon, though things obviously change quickly. Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com has already suggested Dallas Clark as a potential Hernandez replacement, given Clark’s past receiving prowess. The possibility makes some sense, especially when remembering Clark visited the Pats last offseason, but it’s fair to question how much the 34 year old has left. As the chart shows, his stats have really fallen off from his peak between 2007-09.
Recently, Andrew Martin of Yahoo.com floated Travis Beckum as a possibility. At age 26, the ex-Giant represents a possibility with higher upside, since he never really got many reps in Gotham behind Ballard and Kevin Boss. Beckum’s 6’3” and 234 pound frame would offer some diversity among the Pats’ bigger tight ends, and his 4.61 40-yard dash at his Pro Day indicates a better fit as a hybrid wide receiver than a traditional in-the-trenches tight end.
Early Depth Chart Projection
PUP/Inactive: Rob Gronkowski. Gronk may not miss the first six weeks because of his significance to the Pats’ offense, but it seems safe to assume he will miss the Week 1 opener in Buffalo. It appears New England will take a conservative approach with their remaining franchise tight end, and it’s hard to argue with that decision in the long-term.
1. Michael Hoomanawanui. Hooman’s familiarity with the system and reliability as a blocker should earn him a reliable amount of reps no matter what. He is probably the safest bet among the tight ends in terms of predictable production.
2. Jake Ballard. Depending on how much the Patriots rely on their “12” personnel (two tight ends), Ballard may not see as many snaps as some expect, even without Gronkowski. Still, his size provides intriguing possibility as a red-zone target in Gronk’s absence.
3. Daniel Fells. Fells may very well leap to the No. 1 role on this chart, but he will have to show more in training camp than he has thus far. Scarcity will likely keep him on the roster come Week 1, but don’t be surprised if he’s the cut when Gronk is activated.
4. Zach Sudfeld. Given how New England lost similarly promising tight ends Lee Smith and Will Yeatman by exposing them to waivers in 2011, the Pats may take more caution with Sudfeld. The team kept at least four tight ends all of last season, so Sudfeld may sneak onto the roster.
Practice Squad: Brandon Ford. Ford has enough receiving ability that it is worth seeing if he can develop his currently-porous route-running and blocking into passable attributes. And as the past few months have shown, you can never be too careful with adding depth.
*Unless otherwise cited, all stats courtesy Pro-Football-Reference.com