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Patriots 2010 Preview: Tight Ends

Alge Crumpler New England Patriots

A lot can change in one year. Even a whole position on a team. For as long as I can remember the Patriots have always had a formidable group of tight ends and this upcoming season, the team will continue that very tradition. Only this time, all four tight ends are brand new to the team and the system. Except one: Rob Myers. Never really heard of him? Me either, so basically he’s still a new guy in town.

The other three? Veteran Alge Crumpler and then rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. In head coach Bill Belichicks’ system, the creative four-some will balance each other out and hopefully result in an even stronger offense.

Last season also saw somewhat of a ‘passing of the torch’ in terms of what the tight end group was made of. The only problem was that the torch wasn’t passed onto anyone and the team’s best tight end last year in Ben Watson is now playing for the Cleveland Browns. Watson had 29 receptions last season for 404 yards and five touchdowns.

Watson’s backup in Chris Baker caught 14 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns and he now resides in Seattle playing for the Seahawks. Now the Pats must make up for those seven touchdowns and 546 yards from Watson and Baker, and what better way than bringing in Crumpler and two strong rookies.

So just who are these players exactly?

Alge Crumpler

Crumpler is the veteran tight end on the team is expected to be the starter to open up the season. When I heard that the Pats had signed Crumpler, my first reaction was that this was going to be a great signing, but then I remember that I haven’t heard much about him in a couple of years. So I looked into his stats and noticed that he has become more of a blocking tight end, rather than the receiving tight end he used to be.

Maybe I was too quick to remember that he caught 65 receptions for 877 yards with five touchdowns in 2005. It could be that I overlooked that he went in to the Titans preseason last year 30 pounds heavier and became more of a blocker. Blocking tight ends aren’t normally the most talked about players on the field but they can be more crucial to an offense than a receiving tight end.

What I expect for Crumpler is for him to be the starter on the team and ultimately be a blocker for the run game. An important thing to note is that ESPN (among many other sites) lists Crumpler at 262 pounds, 38 pounds lighter than he was last season. Does that mean he will be more of a factor on the receiving end? The Pats can only hope so. By gaining experience as a blocker last year for Chris Johnson on Tennessee, Crumpler could very well be a more rounded player this season for New England. He could return to his old ways of being a threat down field, and also help the run game by being a strong blocker.

Statistically, Crumpler could put up something close to what Watson put up last year. So, a line of 30 receptions for 425 yards and four or five touchdowns is certainly not out of the question for him. I do think he will be more of a blocker for the team, but if he has cut down that much weight, he could very well catch a couple passes and improve the passing game even more.

Rob Gronkowski

Going into the 2010 season, the big question for Rob Gronkowski will be his health. After convincing New England that he was healthy enough to use the 42nd overall pick in this year’s draft, Gronkowski should arrive at camp healthy and ready to play after missing all of the 2009 season at the University of Arizona due to back surgery.

In 2008 he was voted as a third-team-All-American after catching 47 passes for 672 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also missed the first three games of the season due to illness.

So how will Gronkowski fit in next year? If Crumpler starts to show age or comes down with an injury, it would be very likely that Gronkowski will fill in for him. Gronkowski is a strong blocker but can also be a threat down the field as he displayed in his two seasons in Arizona.

He was regarded as the best tight end in the 2010 NFL Draft and that is for a good reason. He is a tough kid who is very versatile. If his back is as healthy as he says it is, then he could be a very good addition to the Patriots offense this season.

I can see him putting up the lowest numbers of the three actual tight ends, but will end up being the most important for the team. I think his blocking will help the run game more than people think but he will still play a factor on the passing game as well. A line of 18 receptions for 175 yards and two touchdowns should not be too far out of reach, of course that is if he is able to play the whole season.

Aaron Hernandez

I’m excited to see Hernandez play in the Patriots offense. There, I said it. By the way analysts talk about this kid, it seems that he is going to be the perfect fit in New England and complement Gronkowski very well. Although he is not the best blocker (that is why they picked up Gronkowski), he can really catch the ball. he even set the all-time record for receptions by a tight end for Florida last season with 68.

So what if he openly admitted to smoking marijuana, he’s still a great football player. Ricky Williams anyone? It actually helped New England’s case to get him because he fell all the way to the fourth round, where the Pats took advantage.

The one question for Hernandez going into the season is whether or not his size will play a factor. Standing at a mere 6-foot-2 and weighing in at 250 pounds it will be tough for him to match up at the tight end position. I see him as being a good replacement for Heath Evans, who left two years ago for the Saints, as the Pats fullback. New England has lacked a real fullback recently and it would be nice to see Hernandez thrive in the role.

Coming off the biggest season of his career, Hernandez not only set the record for most receptions by a tight end in Florida Gator history, he racked up a very impressive 850 yards and five touchdowns on his way to earning the John Mackey Award for the best tight end in the nation. Of course, his numbers reflected the wild cat offense performed by Tim Tebow, so that helped out a lot. He was also asked to step his game up last season after Percy Harvin declared for the draft the year before and Hernandez did just that.

His versatility is going to take him very far in the Patriots offense for years to come as he is signed for the next four seasons and his pay is based primarily on his performance on the field.

It would not surprise me to see Hernandez lined up at the fullback position and then occasionally at tight end opposite of Grankowski/Crumpler in passing situations. His size and quickness just tell me that he is going to be on the receiving end of most passes by Tom Brady at the line of scrimmage. He has great hands and is absolutely great after the catch, so look for him to make a lot of plays when it looks like the play is dead.

I look for Hernandez to put up similar numbers to what Evans did in 2005. He may not rush the ball 51 times for 192 yards but something around 30 rushes for 120 yards isn’t out of reach. Hernandez is also a lot more capable of catching the ball more than Evans was. Evans only had 10 receptions for 88 yards, Hernandez should see closer to 20-25 receptions and 200 yards.

Out of all the tight ends New England has going into the season, Hernandez should be the most fun to watch, that is if he is able to get the offense down right away. He was able to understand and be a target in Urban Meyer’s offense, so he should be able to catch on to Belichick’s system fairly quick.

Rob Myers

Hate to say it, but Myers will take a backseat to Crumpler and the two rookies this season,  but that doesn’t mean he won’t be a factor at all. As the rest of the football world knows, Bill Belichick finds something for every player to do and Myers should be no different. I expect Myers to be a pretty good special teams player but nothing more than that. If one of the three other tight ends goes down, then there is the possibility that he could fill in, but even that scenario is unlikely.

I don’t expect to see him put up any numbers this season in the receiving area but he could play a role on special teams or if the reserves get a chance late in a game. Look for Myers on the practice squad for most of the season.

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