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Countdown to Camp: Tight ends

07.22.13 at 10:39 pm ET
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Rob Gronkowski

Rob Gronkowski

As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Patriots. We’ve looked at the special teamers/specialists, linebackers, safeties, cornerbacks, defensive line and offensive line. Now, it’s the tight ends.

Depth chart: Rob Gronkowski, Daniel Fells, Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui, Zach Sudfeld, Brandon Ford.

Overview: In 12 months, this went from being the strongest, deepest position on the team to one with the most question marks. The Patriots enter the 2013 season without Aaron Hernandez, who was the most dynamic and versatile offensive presence on the roster. Meanwhile, Gronkowski underwent multiple offseason surgeries on his back and forearm, and his availability remains in doubt for the start of the 2013 season. That leaves a collection of tight ends who, while having spent some substantial time in the league over the last three seasons, don’t have nearly the resume of either Hernandez or Gronkowski. Fells, Ballard and Hoomanawanui all have experience in the system (Ballard was around in 2012 but spent the whole season on the bench because of a knee injury in Super Bowl XLVI), so there’s something to be said for the fact that they won’t have to spend much time getting up to speed in the system. Sudfeld opened some eyes this spring, but at this point it’s not realistic to count on much from him or Ford this year.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Much of the success of the New England passing game in 2013 will hinge on a healthy Gronkowski. Despite all the offseason losses, as well as the fact that they hit the reset button at the receiver position, if Gronkowski can be something resembling his old self down the stretch (like he was late in his record-breaking season of 2011), it could stabilize the passing game. The combination of Gronkowski, Ballard, receiver Danny Amendola and running back Shane Vereen (with Julian Edelman and one of the two rookie receivers providing depth) could provide quarterback Tom Brady with enough options in the passing game to restore some sense of order. Gronkowski demands attention when he’s on the field at all times, and that would open things up for the others. It wouldn’t be the same as it was when Hernandez and Wes Welker were around, but it’s better than nothing. Of course, it all hinges on a healthy Gronkowski. While New England will still feature itself a game-plan offense, fair or not, much of the success or failure of the passing game will fall on Gronkowski.

2. The Patriots are going to have to rely on Ballard for a stretch of the 2013 season. No one is quite sure what to expect from Ballard, who was on the shelf for all of 2012 with a knee injury he suffered when playing for the Giants against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. The undrafted free agent out of Ohio State carved out a nice niche for himself in 2011 with New York, finishing the year with 38 catches for 604 yards and four touchdowns (and adding five more receptions in the postseason). While he was on the field with the rest of the squad during spring practices, it appeared he was still working his way back, looking a little slow at times as he worked with Brady to pick up some of the nuances of the passing game. If Gronkowski is out for any period of time — and it’s expected he will start the regular season on PUP — look for Ballard to pick up some of Gronk’s reps. While he’s not an exact replica, the 6-foot-6, 275-pound Ballard might be the closest thing the Patriots have to a Plan B when it comes to holding things over until Gronkowski is at 100 percent.

3. The Patriots have gotten used to playing without Hernandez and Gronkowski. I’ll give you that this is strictly glass-is-half-full stuff we’re presenting here — and it should be taken with a grain of salt because Welker was still on the roster — but New England got a look at what life without the duo was like for a good portion of last season. Both Gronkowski and Hernandez were banged up pretty much from start to finish last year, with Hernandez going down with an ankle injury in a Week 2 loss to the Cardinals. (He ultimately missed six-plus games.) Meanwhile, Gronkowski suffered a broken arm on Nov. 18 against the Colts and missed five weeks. 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.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. What should be done with Sudfeld? The massive tight end (6-foot-7, 255 pounds) was an undrafted free agent out of Nevada who opened some eyes during the spring practice sessions. He took advantage of the fact that the Patriots were without either Gronkowski or Hernandez (who was still part of the team at that time but practicing on a limited basis) and showed a nice set of hands, and while the pads haven’t gone on yet, his size suggests he should be able to hold his own when it comes to blocking defensive ends. He likely could use some seasoning, but he played well this spring, and if he has a good camp and preseason, he could be tough to get through waivers in an attempt to get him to the practice squad. Of course, with the loss of Hernandez and uncertainty surrounding Gronkowski, his chances of making the final 53 increased greatly this spring. But he might have played himself into that in-between area where he’s too good for the practice squad but not quite ready for prime time. He’ll be one to watch this summer at camp.

2. If they were in a fix, how much could the Patriots conceivably get out of Fells and Hoomanawanui? Neither of them are top-tier tight ends, but they are dependable, and the fact that they both spent a year in the system in 2012 has to account for something. Fells had an up-and-down year last year — because of the injuries to Gronkowski and Hernandez, there were weeks when he played a sizable chunk of snaps (57 of 70 against the Jets on Thanksgiving, 46 of 81 the following week against the Dolphins), but there were four games when he played single digits. If he can hold off the youngsters like Sudfeld and Ford, he will be a part of the rotation this year. (Money might figure into the decision — Fells makes base salaries of $1.25 million this year and $1.75 million next year, while Sudfeld, Ford and even Ballard all make considerably less.) Meanwhile, Hoomanawanui certainly won’t need to book a flight for the Pro Bowl in January, but he developed nicely last year and has some positional versatility in that he can work a little at fullback. He played a lot of snaps down the stretch — roughly 50 percent of the snaps between Week 14 against the Texans and the divisional playoff win against Houston — and also brings special teams value to the table.

3. Could wide receiver Mark Harrison make the switch to tight end? Listed as a receiver on the roster, the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder out of Rutgers (a three-year starter in college, he had 107 receptions for 1,769 yards and 18 touchdowns with the Scarlet Knights) doesn’t have the body of your average Patriots receiver. And while we don’t know much about any potential blocking skills at the NFL level, he certainly has the bulk of your average-sized tight end. It would probably be too much to ask him to contribute serious snaps as a rookie — especially in the wake of a foot injury that hampered him at his pro day and kept him from fully participating in spring workouts. But he’s a guy who bears watching for several reasons, not the least of which is that he has a unique skill set that might allow him to move to tight end if need be.

By the numbers: According to ESPN Stats & Information, Gronkowski has caught 187 career passes from Brady in his three-year career. If he catches 63 more from the quarterback, the tight end would be the fifth different pass-catcher to post 250 receptions from Brady over the course of the quarterback’s career — Gronkowski would join Wes Welker (563), Deion Branch (328), Troy Brown (323) and Kevin Faulk (310).

Key new player: Ballard — He looked a little clunky in the spring practices, and it remains to be seen just how much of that was him knocking off some of the rust from being on the shelf for a year, and how much of that is now simply a part of his game because of the knee injury. But if he’s healthy, he’ll play a role for this team in 2013.

The skinny: It has been a rough year for the Patriots tight end corps. This time last year, everyone was talking about how the Gronkowski-Hernandez duo would revolutionize the game, and 11 months ago, Hernandez was gifted with a massive extension. In the second game of the 2012 season, he went down with an injury that cost him a sizable portion of the year, and then was embroiled in a surreal murder case that resulted in his release and left him in prison. Meanwhile, Gronkowski underwent several surgeries this offseason, casting a shadow over his professional future. That leaves New England with a Ballard-Fells-Hoomanawanui combo, which could be augmented by youngsters Sudfeld and/or Ford. A onetime position of strength for the Patriots is now clouded with doubt, and when it comes to Hernandez, a gnawing sense of what might have been. It’s up to Gronkowski to shoulder the burden now. Time will tell if he can rise to the challenge.

Read More: Countdown to Camp,
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