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2013-2014 New England Patriots Position Preview: Tight Ends

Rob Gronkowski is a big threat to the opposition when he's healthy, but will he be healthy this season? (Jared W, Getty Images)

The new NFL season is rapidly approaching, and the Patriots seem to be dropping like flies. In fact, the offense especially is losing its most potent targets for Tom Brady; good thing he can make anyone look good. If there was ever a time for another AFC East team to take over dominance, it’s now. However, don’t count the Pats out just yet. Brady is still here, and there are other options to go to. Last year, the tight end tandem of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski nearly won the Pats another Super Bowl in front of Tom Brady. Now, Gronk is hurt, and we all remember what happened with Hernandez.

Check: Other Patriots Previews

So where does that leave the tight end depth chart? Let’s take a look at how the Patriots look to start the season at the tight end position this time around:

Rob Gronkowski:

Gronk is a beast, but he’s had problems ever since breaking his arm on an extra point late last season. The Pats recently put their non-Brady star on the PUP list, but that means little, since they can always remove him before September without penalty. If he’s healthy, he’ll play.

Gronk’s forearm should be good to go (good enough at least); that pesky infection in the break is no more, and there haven’t been any reported setbacks. After undergoing back surgery to help with disc issues in June, his surgeon Dr. Robert Watkins and the facility released the following statement:

“New England Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski underwent a microscopic lumbar discectomy surgery performed by Dr. Robert Watkins at Marina Del Rey Hospital in Los Angeles. The surgery went well. The timing of his return to football will depend on his progression through the rehabilitation program.”

The recovery time for such surgeries run about three months, which would make Gronkowski playing in Week 1 a photo finish. If he were to miss any games, it would most likely be one or two at worst. If Gronk is still on the PUP list in September, he’d have to miss six games, and the Pats can’t afford that.

Given that the Pats’ first three games are at Buffalo then versus the Jets and Buccaneers, Gronk wouldn’t be expressly needed until Week 4 in Atlanta. Buffalo and New York are in turmoil, and we’ll see what Darelle Revis can do with Tampa after his own injury issues.

The bottom line in all this is that Gronk shouldn’t miss much time, if any. As long as he’s not too reckless and doesn’t take the worst of hits, he should be okay, if not at the level he once was.

Aside from a two-yard rushing touchdown on a backwards pass in 2011, Gronk has done the following:

Season Games Receptions Yards Touchdowns
2010 16 42 546 10
2011 16 90 1327 17
2012 11 55 790 11

Michael Hoomanawanui

The Patriots sure have a thing in recent years for former Rams. Hoomanawanui caught three touchdowns in his rookie season in 2010, but hasn’t done too much since. In fact, he has 25 receptions combined in his three-year career, with his reception total going down each year. However, in his one season with the Patriots last year, his yards per catch nearly doubled.

So there’s the potential of a deeper threat if need be, but with the lack of catches, he could also be used as a blocking variety of tight end for the receiving corps. In the end, since Hoomanawanui hasn’t done much, that could make him deadly if the Patriots plan with him right. He sure won’t have much film with which opponents can game-plan.

Hoomanawanui could be a good option if Gronk isn’t completely up to speed, but without much experience, the surprise factor likely won’t convince the Patriots to take a chance on Hoomanawanui if they don’t have to.

Season Team Games Games Started Receptions Yards Touchdowns
2010 Rams 8 3 13 146 3
2011 Rams 8 8 7 83 0
2012 Patriots 14 6 5 109 0

Daniel Fells

What did I tell you about former Rams? Daniel Fells played mostly as a substitute during his three years with the Rams, but considering that racked up some okay numbers. His numbers dipped slightly in 2011 in Denver despite becoming a starter. Fells played the 2012 season with New England, but with at least one of Gronkowski and Hernandez on the field at most times, he largely dropped off the map. Still, his yards per catch when he was reeling in balls was a big improvement.

Fells has been in the league long enough to know how to get things done. And he has the playing time to fit in nicely as the second tight end; the Pats do like to use multiple tight ends at once from time to time. As the most senior tight end on the Patriots’ roster, Fells has plenty of potential to fit in.

Season Team Games Games Started Receptions Yards Touchdowns
2008 Rams 12 1 7 81 0
2009 Rams 14 4 21 273 3
2010 Rams 16 6 41 391 2
2011 Broncos 16 15 19 256 3
2012 Patriots 13 4 4 85 0

Jake Ballard

In what would be a dramatic option for tight end, Jake Ballard could make a return from ACL surgery. The only catch? He was waved by the Giants during the offseason in 2012 in an attempt to put him on IR and make room on the active roster. New England, having lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl, picked him up off waivers when the Giants expected to retain him. Tom Coughlin promptly threw a bit of a tantrum.

In his one season with appreciable playing time, Ballard didn’t do too bad. The Patriots might like him to be slightly more productive in their up-tempo offense, which won’t be too difficult with Tom Brady slinging the pigskin around. The only issue would be if the Patriots have enough confidence in him to produce, both because of the ACL and because of the relative lack of experience. Especially if Gronk doesn’t re-injure himself, this could be why Ballard is listed on the “others” section of the depth chart.

Season Team Games Games Started Receptions Yards Touchdowns
2010 Giants 1 0
2011 Giants 14 13 38 604 4

The Rookies: Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford

Zach Sudfeld is an undrafted rookie free agent out of Nevada. In 2012, his only season with more than one catch, he caught 45 balls for 598 yards and eight touchdowns. Those TDs could make him an attractive option if pressed into service. He was even credited with a rushing touchdown. Still, there are other options at tight end, and Sudfeld has little experience even in college and went undrafted.

Brandon Ford is also undrafted free agent, and attended Clemson. He worked his way up the ranks in college, finally becoming what might be considered a Patriot-level player in 2012, when he caught 40 passes for 480 yards and eight touchdowns. He has more experience in 2010 and 2011 than Sudfeld, but not nearly enough to avoid putting him in the same boat. Negative things will need to happen to those above him in the depth chart for him to have much of a chance.

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