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Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Tight ends

01.29.14 at 1:06 pm ET
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Everything changed for the Patriots offense when Rob Gronkowski went down for the season. (AP)

Everything changed for the Patriots offense when Rob Gronkowski went down for the season. (AP)

With the Patriots done for the season, we’ve got an end-of-the-year position-by-position breakdown of where the roster stands. We started with special teams and the wide receivers. Now, it’€™s the tight ends.

Depth chart: Rob Gronkowski (39 catches, 592 yards, 4 TDs), Matthew Mulligan (2 catches, 16 yards, 1 TD), Michael Hoomanawanui (12 catches, 136 yards, 1 TD), D.J. Williams.

Overview: For the Patriots, the tight end position went from one of strength to one of uncertainty over the last 12 months. Aaron Hernandez was removed from the picture, while Gronkowski’s health produced a roller-coaster effect that the team struggled to adjust to over the course of the year. As a result, a New England offense that had been constructed around one of the best young tight end combos in recent NFL history was forced to readjust.

The Gronk Watch consumed most of late summer and into early fall, but when he was truly healthy — pretty much the month of November — the big fella was his usual dominant self. In one four-game stretch (from Nov. 3 through Dec. 1), he had 27 catches for 419 yards and four touchdowns, and was a game-changing presence for the New England offense.

Of course, all of that changed when he went down early against the Browns — he was carted off the field, and in part because of his injury, the Patriots offense downshifted from a pass-first game to a run-heavy approach. The loss of Gronkowski was felt across the board, but never more than in the red zone, where the Patriots struggled for a few weeks trying to find the right formula to score from inside the 20. They were able to hit on it with a suddenly resurgent running game, but without Gronkowski, other targets needed to raise their game. Some did. Others did not.

As for the rest of the tight end grouping, the Hoomanawanui/Mulligan combo will never make people forget about Gronkowski, but they both developed a rep as solid and dependable blockers over the course of the season. Williams also does a nice job providing depth. But at the end of the day, it all comes back to Gronkowski — if they can get him back to something approximating 100 percent by the start of the season, he should have his usual transformative presence on the New England passing game. Long-term, the question is whether or not he’ll be able to consistently stay healthy. Only time will tell on that front.

Best moment: Three of them, all scoring plays: One, Gronkowski’s touchdown against the Broncos wasn’t necessarily an aesthetic thing of beauty, but the celebration between the tight end and quarterback Tom Brady transcended any Gronk spike of the last few seasons. Two, the big fella also added a fingertip grab inches off the ground in a win over the Texans in Houston. And three, Hooman’s absolutely ridiculous one-handed touchdown grab against the Dolphins in Miami, one of the prettiest plays of the year

Worst moment: The sight of Gronkowski being carted off after getting hurt against the Browns was far and away the most devastating sight for the New England offense this past season.

By the numbers: Gronkowski was targeted 17 times in his first game of the 2013 season, an Oct. 20 loss to the Jets (the seventh contest of the regular season). Through the first six games of the year, the entire group of New England tight ends had been targeted a total of 15 times.

Money quote: “It hurts to see any of those guys go down, certainly with Gronk. We’ve sustained some pretty big injuries this year with really important, critical players, so we’ve got to just keep bouncing back. … No one feels sorry for the Patriots. I think we all feel sorry for Rob, but I don’€™t think anyone feels sorry for the Patriots.” — Brady after Gronkowski suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Browns

Read More: Michael Hoomanawanui, position-by-position breakdown, Rob Gronkowski, Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
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