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Countdown to Patriots Camp: Tight end

07.24.12 at 12:26 am ET
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Rob Gronkowski has had a busy offseason. (AP)

In the days leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we’ll take a quick look at how each position shakes out. We broke down quarterback and running back. Now, we take a look at the tight end position.

Roster (2011 stats): Rob Gronkowski (90 catches, 1,327 yards, 17 receiving touchdowns), Aaron Hernandez (79 catches, 910 receiving yards, seven receiving touchdowns), Daniel Fells (19 catches, 256 receiving yards, three receiving touchdowns for Denver), Jake Ballard (38 catches, 604 receiving yards, four touchdowns with the Giants), rookie Tyler Urban.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

The Patriots have the best tight end combo in the league. Duh. The Gronkowski/Hernandez duo creates matchup nightmares for opposing defenses, and only figure to get better as they spend more time in the league. (It’s hard to believe that even after two years in the NFL, Hernandez is still one of the younger players on the roster — he’s almost nine months younger than rookie defensive lineman Jake Bequette).

Coming off ankle surgery, Gronkowski will take it slow at the start of camp. It’s worth noting that when the list of players that will start camp on the active/PUP list was released Monday, Gronkowski wasn’t on it. That’s a good sign for a player who didn’t participate in any of the on-field drills throughout the spring, instead working off to the side as the ankle healed. He won’t be going half-speed out there, but his health will be monitored very closely throughout the summer.

When it comes to defending Gronkowski, teams might follow Oakland’s lead. One interesting breakdown on how teams might be able to contain the big fella comes from our pals at Pro Football Focus, who looked at the job the Raiders did on Gronk early in the 2011 season. A great read, and one other clubs on the Patriots’ 2012 schedule might want to consider.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Will the Patriots utilize a third tight end? While it’s unlikely Ballard plays this season (he had offseason knee surgery for an injury he suffered in the Super Bowl), New England has been active on the free agent market this offseason. They signed Fells and kicked the tires on Visanthe Shiancoe. (They even had Bo Scaife in for a quick visit.) It’s not realistic that any of them will have a serious statistical impact on what New England does, but would likely mean that the days of the occasional rep at tight end for Nate Solder could be coming to a close. (On Fells, it’s also worth mentioning that he learned what it takes to be a mentor from Alge Crumpler when the two were together in Atlanta, and talked about the Crump HERE. Crumpler, who took the two young tight ends under his wing when they were rookies, could help continue the maturation process this year.)

2. Will there be any hangover from the Summer of Gronk? He was America’s Guest all offseason, engaging in a rollicking, Zubaz-clad ride from one event to another, punctuated by the news that he had signed an eight-year, $55.23 million contract with $13.17 million guaranteed. We know he’s already received at least one reminder that it’s time to put his focus back to football, and past history tells us that the franchise usually has a pretty good track record when it comes to making sure stars are able to keep their eyes on the prize. (It’s also worth mentioning that he’ll almost certainly be reminded on a daily basis about his offseason fun by his teammates, but to his credit, he was never photographed holding a goat.)

3. What else can you do with Hernandez? The Florida product was used as an offensive chess piece by the Patriots last season: He was split wide, in the slot, flush against a tackle and in the backfield. The only thing you probably can’t have him doing on a regular basis is work as a blocker. Not many places left on the field for him to line up, but you never know.

By the numbers, courtesy of Nuggetpalooza: Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez each caught 40-plus passes in each of the past two seasons. They are only the second pair of tight ends since 1958 to do that in consecutive seasons. The other? San Diego’s Eric Sievers and Pete Holohan in 1984-1985. They had this Kellen Winslow guy too, but he only managed 25 catches in 1985 or the Chargers would have had THREE tight ends with 40-plus catches in both of those seasons.

The skinny: What more can you say? While some around the league will argue the merits of Gronkowski vs. Jimmy Graham, there’s no denying the fact that the Patriots have the best young tight end duo in the league. Barring injury — or if some opposing defensive coordinator finds some sort of kryptonite for one or both of them — there’s no reason to think that these two shouldn’t again be dominant.

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Alge Crumpler, Bo Scaife, Countdown to Camp Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
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