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Bye-week Breakdown: Tight ends

11.08.13 at 9:52 pm ET
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Rob Gronkowski has had a tremendous effect on the offense the last couple of weeks. (AP)

Rob Gronkowski has had a tremendous effect on the offense the last couple of weeks. (AP)

With the Patriots off this weekend, we’ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the Patriots. We kicked things off with a look at the special teamers, wide receivers and running backs. Now. it’s the tight ends.

Overview: Where to start? There might not be another positional grouping across the league that underwent a more radical change from 2012 to 2013 than the New England tight ends. Aaron Hernandez was released this offseason, and Rob Gronkowski underwent multiple surgeries on his back and forearm. As a result, the Patriots opened the season with Zach Sudfeld, Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan at tight end, with Gronkowski on the roster but not available to play.

While the will-he-or-won’t-he drama played out around Gronkowski for the first month or so, Hoomanawanui assumed the bulk of the playtime, and did well. He certainly wasn’t to provide the offensive oomph of Gronkowski, but he served as a good blocker and dependable set of hands when called upon — he had a pair of big pickups against the Saints, and did well when it came to skating his lane.

When Gronkowski returned in Oct. 20 loss to the Jets, he clearly wasn’t back to 100 percent, but demanded attention pretty much wherever he went. Since then, his influence has escalated, peaking with last Sunday’s outing against the Steelers, where he had nine catches and worked nicely as a receiver and blocker. His work against Pittsburgh, combined with the fact that Stevan Ridley and Danny Amendola were on the field with his for an extended stretch, was a reminder that a healthy Gronkowski is a transformative presence, one who completely changes the face of the New England offense. The only question is whether or not he can stay healthy. If so, and he can continue to ramp up over the course of the second half of the season, there’s no reason to think he shouldn’t be able to finish the season in the neighborhood of 50 catches and play a major role in determining just how deep this team plays into January.

Depth chart: Gronkowski (19 catches, 284 yards, one TD), Hoomanawanui (9 catches, 112 yards), Mulligan (1 catch, 1 yard, 1 TD).

Best moment: In his best performance in almost a full calendar year (his last outing on this level was the win over the Rams in London last October), Gronkowski was a dominant performer against the Steelers. He not only brought the offensive thunder that had been missing from the tight end spot over the first eight games with nine catches (on 10 targets) for 143 yards and a touchdown, he affected the entire offense — he was double-teamed, which opened things up for the rest of the skill position players. And he worked as a blocker, helping pave the way for Ridley to top 100 yards for the first time on the season.

Worst moment: Simply put, there haven’t been a whole lot of bad moments over the season at the tight end spot — without Gronkowski in the lineup, it’s occasionally just been underwhelming. We’ll go with two: one, the drop from Sudfeld in the regular-season opener against the Bills. And two, the missed connections involving Gronkowski in his first game back against the Jets. (One where he lost the ball in the sun, and another where he wasn’t able to haul in a pass that would have almost certainly gone for a touchdown late in regulation.)

By the numbers: (tied) One, In his first game back (Oct. 20 against the Jets) Gronkowski was targeted 17 times by quarterback Tom Brady. To that point in the season — the first six games — the rest of the tight ends as a group had been targeted 15 times. And two, among all the offensive skill position players other than the quarterback, Hoomanawanui is second in most snaps over the course of the first nine games. (Julian Edelman is first at 545, while Hoomanawanui is at 486, per Pro Football Focus.)

Money quote: “He brings a whole lot to the table. He’s productive, and I don’t know how many yards or catches he had, but it was a lot in both categories. He’s a major part of this offense, and as long as we get him going, that will open up a lot of opportunities for other players, [like] opportunities in the run game. He’s a big part of our offense.” — Running back LeGarrette Blount on Gronkowski, Nov. 3 following his performance against the Steelers.

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