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Last year, the tight end position separated the Patriots from the rest of the pack, as Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez put up tremendous offensive numbers, and with the promise of another successful season around the corner, there’s little reason to expect anything but a repeat performance.
However, with just about any position on any team, the stars don’t mean everything when analyzing the roster in the pre-season. The Patriots depth at the tight end position can also be seen as a team strength, and as long as Tom Brady is throwing passes, just about any option can be a significant weapon in this offense.
Let’s all take a deep breath and accept an unfortunate reality: It’s unlikely Gronkowski will be able to match his numbers from last year. Ninety receptions and 1,327 total yards in the regular season made ‘Gronk’ a superstar nationwide, enough to give the 23-year-old candidacy to be on the cover of the popular Madden video game series, losing out to Detroit Lions receiver who ended up winning the honor for Madden 13.
But if Gronk doesn’t put up another monster season, it really shouldn’t matter. With depth at the position and in other receiving options, namely the potential of Hernandez, less could be more for Gronk, who caught 17 touchdown passes last year.
Opposing defensive coordinators probably experience a few sleepless nights heading into a game against the Pats dynamic duo of tight end options. It’s hard to say that a 22-year old with seven touchdowns and 910 yards can be under the radar, but that’s essentially what Hernandez was last year with the monstrous season of Gronk.
Hernandez shouldn’t lose any playing time despite the lot of receiving options added to Bill Belichick’s playbook arsenal, as he and Gronkowski were regulars on just about every play last year. Each brought athleticism and intelligence to the field, and that theme will certainly continue as they frustrate opposing defenses.
In the event that Gronkowski and Hernandez get a break and don’t play every single snap (an unfortunate reality), the 28-year-old Fells is someone who could be relied on. The team signed him to a three-year contract, with the expectation that he will primarily serve as Gronkowski’s backup option specializing in blocking. As of last Thursday, he is currently listed on the PUP list (physically unable to perform) with a shoulder injury.
Playing on two different teams over the last two years, Fells has played in all 32 possible games. Last season he recorded 19 catches for 256 yards with the Denver Broncos. So while it’s unlikely Fells will contribute much more than lining up for the occasional play, he does offer some depth at the position and has the potential to be a solid option, as he was in 2010 with the St. Louis Rams when he had nearly 400 yards.
It was unclear as to whether the 32-year-old Shiancoe would be able to crack the roster after he was signed to a one-year deal in late July, however his athleticism in camp has given him the potential to serve as Hernandez’s backup option.
As a receiving option, Shiancoe put up 400 yards in each of the last four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. He’s played all 16 games in his nine NFL seasons, and can keep that up in the Patriots offense. Look for Shiancoe to get significant playing time if he manages to stay healthy.
The Patriots pulled off quite the offseason addition when they snatched Ballard off waivers from the New York Giants. At 24 years old, Ballard has the potential to grow into a solid tight end option, catching four touchdown passes last season for New York. He tore his ACL during the Super Bowl and joins the Patriots after the Giants incorrectly assumed he’d clear waivers.
The team has the option to retain him for the 2013 season even if he doesn’t play a snap in 2012, and for cheap money he could be of great value. We’ll have to keep an eye on his recovery status as the season progresses.
Simply a member of the roster for depth, Urban could see playing time if injuries derail either Gronkowski or Hernandez over the course of the season. He was signed after a season-ending injury to TE Brad Herman, and was released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason before being picked up by the Pats.
There’s no doubt that the Patriots have the most talent at the core of their tight end position in the NFL. If Gronkowski and Hernandez can put up numbers remotely close to their respective 2011 seasons, Brady and the Pats offense should be in great condition to make a run at a repeat appearance in the Superbowl.