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Patriots 2011 Tight Ends Preview: Gronkowski, Hernandez, etc.

TEs Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski celebrate (Image from bleacherreport.com)

During his 11 season tenure as Patriots’ head coach, Bill Belichick has searched for production from the tight end position through many different avenues. From using first round picks on Daniel Graham and Ben Watson, to exploring the free agent market with acquisitions like Christian Fauria, Kyle Brady and Alge Crumpler, Belichick has struggled to find a consistent producer from the position.

See: Our 2011 Patriots Previews

This trend continued in 2010, but appeared to pay positive dividends as Belichick used a pair of draft picks to address his need. New England utilized a second-round choice on Rob Gronkowski, a big target from the University of Arizona, before selecting Florida product Aaron Hernandez in the fourth-round. The duo provided an instant spark to his offense, tallying a combined total of 87 receptions for 1109 yards and 16 touchdowns for the highest scoring unit in the NFL.

Rob Gronkowski

Gronkowski and his 6’6 frame emerged as one of the premier red-zone targets in the league last year. Gronk finished the season with 42 receptions for 546 yards and 10 TD grabs, with nine of his 10 TD grabs occurring inside the 20. The Wildcat alumnus averaged a paltry 9.6 yards-per-TD reception, and was a real menace on the play-action pass, scoring four times via play fake.

A physical specimen with freakish athletic abilities, Gronkowski performed his best against a pair of the league’s best defenses. Gronkowski hauled in a trio of touchdowns in a win over Pittsburgh, while snared the opening TD grab against San Diego.

With the release of blocking Alge Crumpler, it appears that Gronkowski will garner more playing time in 2011. Gronkowski’s blend of size, strength and durability (he played in all 16 games last year) should provide him with plenty of snaps this year.

Aaron Hernandez

Hernandez’s role provides a stark contrast to that of Gronkowski, as the former Gator was utilized more as a receiver during the 2010 campaign.

Despite falling into the fourth-round in the 2010 Draft due to concerns over his consumption of the devil’s lettuce, Hernandez demonstrated his value to Belichick early in the first quarter of a Week 1 win over Cincinnati. Hernandez was  productive throughout the year, earning Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week honors after a Week 15 triumph over Super Bowl champion Green Bay.

Throughout the season, Tom Brady fell in love with the target, as Hernandez registered 45 grabs and scoring six touchdowns, totaling 563 yards. However, Hernandez battled a late season injury last year, requiring him to have hip surgery in February. That injury, combined with a poor performance in Week 1 of the preseason against Jacksonville could limit Hernandez’s potential in 2011 if he does not ascend this year.

Lee Smith

Smith, a fifth round selection in the 2011 Draft from Marshall, will compete for the third tight end spot. Smith is a prototypical New England player, a smart player who produces. The Thundering Herd product was selected to the Conference USA All-Academic team, while accomplishing career highs in yards, receptions and touchdowns.

Smith has struggled in training camp however, losing repetitions to Will Yeatman.

Will Yeatman

Yeatman has seemingly appeared out of nowhere at Patriots’ training camp, quickly rising up the ranks and even earning some practice with the first team.

A two-sport athlete at Maryland, Yeatman also played for the Terrapin lacrosse team. Yeatman has a similar frame to that of Gronkowski, standing at 6’6 and 270 pounds.

The undrafted rookie has impressed coaches and made a name for himself in the Patriots 47-12 preseason win over the Jags. Yeatman hauled in two catches for 14 yards on three targets.

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