With the Patriots off this weekend and the postseason underway, we’ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a week-long, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We started with the quarterbacks  and running backs . Now, it’s on to the tight ends.
Depth chart: Rob Gronkowski  (55 catches on 79 targets, 790 yards, 11 touchdowns), Aaron Hernandez  (51 catches on 84 targets, 483 yards, five touchdowns), Daniel Fells (4 catches on 10 targets, 85 yards), Michael Hoomanawanui (5 catches on 7 targets, 109 yards).
Overview: The Patriots’ passing game went from one that relied heavily on the tight ends in 2011 to one that used them as part of a larger group — mostly because of injury — for a sizable portion of the 2012 season. Both Gronkowski and Hernandez were banged up pretty much from start to finish this past year, with Hernandez going down with an ankle injury in a Week 2 loss to the Cards. (He would ultimately miss six-plus games.) Meanwhile, Gronkowski suffered a broken arm on Nov. 18 against the Colts. (He would miss five weeks and launch a thousand conversations about Bill Belichick ‘s decision to use him as a blocker on an extra point.)
While the Patriots would get important — if under-the-radar — contributions from Fells and Hoomanawanui, the loss of Hernandez and Gronkowski removed a significant portion of the New England offense. (Lost in all the statistical hubbub over Gronkowski was removing from the equation as a run blocker. Through the first 10 games, Gronkowski was a veritable road-grader, an extra tackle who was a big part of the success of the run game.) While the Patriots still managed to set several offensive marks with the two of them playing just over a half-season, there’s small sense of ‘what might have been?’ if the two were good to go for all 16 regular-season games. Does Gronkowski have an impact in the loss to the Niners? Do the Patriots lose to the Cardinals if Hernandez doesn’t go down with an ankle injury in the first half? Do the Patriots rely on Wes Welker  as much as they did down the stretch? And could this team have threatened the 2007 squad when it comes to total offensive numbers?
In the end, while you can debate about the singular abilities of one or the other and where they might rank when stacked against other great young tight ends, there’s no argument that, when they are healthy, there’s no more dynamic combination in the league. There’s no way of really knowing where Gronkowski’s health is at this point, but if the two are anywhere near 100 percent — combined with the work of running back Stevan Ridley and Welker — the Patriots offense  will be incredibly difficult to stop.
Best Moment: When it comes to Gronkowski, his best performance came against the Rams, when he had eight catches on 13 targets for a season-high 146 yards and a pair of touchdowns. (Plus his most memorable Gronk spike of the season .) And while Hernandez had better statistical performances (including a 10-reception effort in the December loss to the Niners), his best game likely came against the Texans on Dec. 10, when he had eight catches on 11 targets for 58 yards and two touchdowns. In that one, he didn’t break many long gainers (his longest of the night was a 13-yarder), but was tough in small spaces.
Worst Moment: Hernandez going down with an ankle injury in Week 2 against the Cardinals. The young tight end, who is New England most dynamic offensive presence when healthy (no one puts more stress on an opposing defense when he’s at 100 percent), went down early, and the Patriots’ offense was wildly out of sync the rest of the afternoon. Maybe the biggest reason behind the loss. (New England can adjust from week-to-week when they lose an option like Hernandez, but the challenge of having someone like that taken away from you in the middle of the game is an awful big hurdle to overcome.)
By the numbers: According to Pro Football Focus, Hernandez played just 573 offensive snaps in 2012 — barely more than the 514 snaps he played as a rookie in 2010. As for Gronkowski, he played 743 offensive snaps in 2012, the lowest total in his three seasons in the league. The decreased snaps led to a dramatic change in targets from 2011 to 2012: the Patriots tight ends had a combined 169 catches on 237 targets in 2011. In 2012, that dipped to 116 catches on 182 targets.
Money quote: ‘It’s always important. I got limited reps, obviously, not that many. But you always want to get some reps before heading into the playoffs. It’s good to get the speed down, the feel of the game. If it’s practice, you can go hard, but that was game time. It was great to get some reps in, get the flow back into it and be out there with your teammates and connect with some chemistry with your teammates.’ — Gronkowski on the importance of getting back on the field before the start of the postseason.