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Countdown to camp: Tight end

07.15.14 at 7:00 am ET
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As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We opened with a look at wide receiver. Now, it’€™s tight end.

Depth chart: Rob Gronkowski (39 catches, 592 yards, 4 TDs in 7 games), Michael Hoomanawanui (12 catches, 136 yards, 1 TD), D.J. Williams, Asa Watson, Justin Jones

Overview: The Patriots have gone from a team that relied heavily on tight ends to one for whom the position became a relatively ancillary part of the passing game. (In 2011, New England tight ends had 169 catches on 237 targets. Last year, the Patriots got 53 catches on 92 targets from the same positional group.) That’€™s not to suggest that — when healthy — Gronkowski isn’t an absolutely vital part of the offense. In one impressive four-game stretch last year (from Nov. 3 through Dec. 1), he had 27 catches for 419 yards and four touchdowns. It’€™s just that with the removal of Aaron Hernandez and the injury issues suffered by Gronkowski, the Patriots have been forced to adapt. Hoomanwanui was a trusted piece of the puzzle in 2013, while New England also got quality snaps from Matthew Mulligan, who has since departed as a free agent to Chicago. Going forward, Hoomanawanui will help pick up the slack if Gronkowski is out for another stretch, while the possibility remains the Patriots will reach out to one of the available veteran free agents still on the market in Dustin Keller and Jermichael Finley. In addition, Williams is still on the roster, but was seen sparingly in workouts this spring, so it’€™s hard to get a handle on just where he is at this point. In addition, rookies Watson and Jones present themselves as possibilities as depth additions and possible practice squad pickups.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. When healthy, Rob Gronkowski is a difference maker.

When he’€™s at 100 percent, there are few offensive players who are more dominant at their respective positions than Gronkowski is at tight end. (Calvin Johnson? Adrian Peterson?) Despite the on-again, off-again 2013 season, his campaign was highlighted by the aforementioned four-game stretch that was highlighted by a nine-catch, 143-yard performance against the Steelers (both season-highs) that included a touchdown grab. In addition, there was a six-catch, 127-yard game against the Texans that featured a sweet fingertip touchdown catch on a ball from Brady that was off the mark. When he’€™s healthy, no tight end in the game brings the skill set that Gronkowski can deliver.

2. Michael Hoomanawanui isn’€™t an elite tight end, but he’€™s an eminently reliable type of player you need on your roster.

Hooman doesn’€™t bring the thunder like Gronkowski, but he’€™s a better-than-average blocker and has some positional versatility (he can play some H-back in addition to tight end). Throw in a 63 percent catch rate (12 receptions on 19 targets) and a good level of familiarity with the offense, and it’€™s easy to see why the Patriots signed him to a two-year deal in the offseason. (He also had one of the prettiest catches of the 2013 season.) He figures to be a quality No. 2 tight end behind Gronkowski in 2014.

3. Brady trusts Gronkowski more than just about any pass catcher he’€™s ever had.

Gronkowski was on the field for just seven games last season, but according to NFL gamebooks, Brady targeted him a total of 66 times, an average of 9.4 targets per game, tied with Julian Edelman (151 targets over 16 games) for most average targets per game. By way of comparison, Shane Vereen was next on the list with an average of 8.6 targets per game, while Danny Amendola was fourth with an average of 6.9 targets per game and Aaron Dobson was fifth with an average of at 6.58 targets per game. He’€™s far and away the leader at tight end — 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.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Can Gronkowski stay healthy?

The big tight end is a game-changer, but his health issues remain a problem. If you’€™re an optimist, you can point to the fact that there have been no surgeries (that we know of, anyway) for Gronkowski since the reconstructed knee work he had done in January. (By all accounts, he no longer needs his Hoveround to maneuver through Whole Foods.) And if he can stay injury free, he’€™s a transformative offensive presence who can help separate the Patriots from the rest of the AFC. If he’€™s sidelined for an extended portion of the regular season (or the playoffs), New England’€™s chances of a fourth title are diminished. That doesn’t mean it can’€™t happen — hey, the Patriots got all the way to the NFL’€™s Final Four last January despite the fact that Gronkowski, Dobson, Vereen, Amendola and Sebastian Vollmer combined to miss 33 games last season. It’€™s only to suggest that the impact of a healthy Gronkowski can’€™t be overstated.

2. Will the Patriots add a free agent tight end?

As of mid-July, both Keller and Finley were still available on the open market. It’€™s believed the Patriots kicked the tires on Keller earlier this spring, while their level of interest in Finley is unclear at this point. Both would likely represent short-term value in being able to offer support while Gronkowski works his way back to 100 percent. Both are coming off injury-plagued 2013 seasons — Keller suffered a nasty knee injury in the 2013 preseason which kept him sidelined for the year, while Finley suffered a spinal contusion last season and underwent neck surgery, bringing his 2013 campaign to an early end. However, the Patriots have never been shy about giving an injured tight end a little extra time to heal. (See Jake Ballard.) If they like what they see from Keller or Finley, it would be a surprise to see them try the same thing this time around.

3. Can one of the rookies make the roster?

Watson and Jones have fascinating backstories. Watson is the younger brother of former Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson and played in 36 games for North Carolina State, catching 29 passes for 351 yards with one touchdown. That despite the fact that he’€™s battled heart issues over the course of his life — they showed up late in his freshman year, and surgery caused him to sit out the 2011 season. (Watson has Wolff-Parkins-White Syndrome, which causes rapid heart beats.) As for Jones, at 6-foot-8 and 274 pounds, he’€™s a massive presence, one who had great measurables as a collegian at East Carolina. (He posted a 4.90-second 40-yard dash, a 6.88 3-cone drill and 38-inch vertical jump.) He had 52 catches for 598 yards and 12 touchdowns at ECU. Some of it depends on the other skill position areas. (Do the Patriots keep an extra wide receiver or running back?) And some depends on whether or not they decide to chase after one of the veteran tight ends on the market. But they do have some viable options at the back end of the depth chart.

By the numbers: Gronkowski opened his professional career with a string of 46 consecutive games played. Then, his forearm snapped while blocking on an extra point in a November 2012 win over the Colts. Since then, because of forearm, back and knee problems, he’€™s played in just nine of a possible 26 games (including the playoffs), with two in 2012 and seven in 2013.

Key new player: Williams. A fascinating prospect who has played for both the Packers and Jags, Williams had the quote of the year shortly after he was signed late last season. The former Green Bay draft pick said learning the New England offense was like trying to pick up an attractive Latin woman. “€œIt’€™s like trying to pick up Spanish. This offense is very attractive and if you found a very attractive Hispanic lady, you’€™d pick it up pretty quick,”€ he said. “€œI’€™ll get in trouble for that. Just have a good time. That’€™s all it is.”€ The 6-foot-2, 245-pounder played two games with the Patriots last year, but could be a part of the mix in 2014 if New England chooses not to sign one of the veteran tight ends still on the market.

The skinny: As we’€™re evaluating the Patriots tight ends for the coming year, there’€™s one thing to consider: No franchise prides itself on being more offensive flexible than the Patriots — witness what they were able to do in 2013, going from an offense in search of an identity to a group that became a pass-heavy unit throughout the middle of the season, and then ended the year as a team that boasted one of the stronger ground games in the NFL. Expecting them to go with plenty of two- and three-tight end sets just because it’€™s what they’€™ve done in the past is a mistake. That doesn’t mean that Gronkowski (if he’€™s healthy) won’€™t necessarily be the focus of the passing game. Only that when it comes to the New England offense, it’€™s dangerous to assume the Patriots will revert to the expected form just because it’€™s something they’ve done in the past.

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