With Patriots training camp set to open on July 26, CBSBostonSports.com will break down the outlook for every position on the roster. Today’s breakdown is on the tight ends.
Position: Tight End
Major Players: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Daniel Fells
On The Bubble: Tyler Urban
There is little question that Rob Gronkowski is up there with the best playmakers in the league. With Tom Brady delivering perfect spirals his way, Gronk dominated the NFL in just his second pro season to the tune of 90 receptions, 1,327 yards and 18 total touchdowns – a tight end record. Opposing defenses couldn’t handle him, as he put up eight multi-touchdown games throughout the regular season and the playoffs.
However, heading into this season there are some questions about his recovery from an ankle injury suffered in the AFC Championship game against the Ravens. Thanks in large part to Bernard Pollard (yes, him again), Gronkowski was held to just two receptions against the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI with the left ankle sprain keeping him from making any difference in the game. He spent most of the offseason in a boot (still finding time to make more public appearances than all of the Kardashians — combined) after undergoing surgery in February, but has said he should be good to go when training camp hits.
But what percent will Gronkowski be when he hits the field?
As it was said leading up to Super Bowl week, any percent of Gronkowski is better than zero-percent. Well, that did not really translate into a powerful offensive attack from the Patriots that February night in Indy. If Gronkowski makes a full recovery in time for the Pats’ season opener against the Titans in Tennessee on September 9, the Patriots offense should be good to go and ready to put up eye-popping numbers once again — with the 23-year-old tight end a big part of it.
But even if he isn’t 100-percent to start the season, Brady has plenty of options at his disposal.
Fellow tight end/receiver/part-time running back Aaron Hernandez is one of those options. In Gronk’s hulking shadow, Hernandez put up very respectable numbers in 2011 — 79 receptions for 910 yards and seven touchdowns – all of which ranked third on the team behind Gronkowski and/or Wes Welker (or vice-versa). He was also targeted by Brady 113 times, just nine fewer times than Gronkowski. Hernandez made some good strides in the receiving game in his second season, giving Brady another slot option at times, and even lined up a in the backfield a handful of times. If the Patriots pulled out a few trick plays with Hernandez in 2011, imagine what Josh McDaniels has up his sleeves for the versatile combo weapon this upcoming season.
Not to be forgotten is Daniel Fells to the mix, who was signed as a free agent this offseason. Fells will help them in the blocking department and might even catch a pass or two, but where the four-year vet will have his greatest impact is the locker room, serving as the Alge Crumpler-type veteran both Gronkowski and Hernandez had at their disposal their rookie season. Fells played with Crumpler during his own rookie season when they were both in the Atlanta Falcons organization, and he plans to carry what he learned from Crump to his new locker room. He also knows Brady will find whoever is open, so he should have more opportunities to catch passes than he did in 2011 from the Kyle Orton/Tim Tebow combo in Denver.
The Patriots also signed Jake Ballard – much to the chagrin of the Giants — who will hit the IR very soon and won’t play a snap this season. But the move was done to give New England another solid tight end option for the 2013 season.
Once again, the Patriots will sport a dynamic tight end duo in Gronkowski and Hernandez, and at the same time have the veteran leadership the two budding stars need. With Brady making the passes, it’s hard not to expect great things from his tight end tandem.