By: Steve Balestrieri
The Patriots will open their 2013 Training Camp next week with the first practice slated for 9 a.m. on July 26. Here at PatsFans.com we’ll be bringing you a look at the roster by positions and who is competing for each slot and how they fit the system.
We’ve already looked at the running backs , linebackers, defensive ends and the safeties as many of the positions this summer will be hotly contested. Check in with us daily as we’ll bring you a close look at training camp from the entire staff here.
Rob Gronkowski’s loss early in the season will be felt, necessitating others to step up until his return. (FILE:USPresswire)
Today we’ll be looking at the tight ends, the players on the roster and how they’ll likely be used by the Patriots and their chances of sticking on the final 53.
What a Difference a Year Makes- Entering the 2012 training camp the Patriots boasted the deepest, most talented TE group in the NFL. Today there are lots of questions surrounding this group and training camp, as with other positions the competition will be wide open.
While the team released Aaron Hernandez for his arrest in the Odin Lloyd murder investigation, Rob Gronkowski is recovering from numerous arm surgeries as well back surgery. The “TE Party” days are now gone and the team is left trying to put the pieces back together.
Something to keep in mind from 2012 is that Gronk and Hernandez were only on the field together for 15 percent of the snaps. And even still this is an offense that racked up nearly 600 points. Both possess different skill sets that made match-ups a nightmare for defensive coordinators.
One area that will be missed with Hernandez gone is surprisingly the running game. Though not an outstanding blocker, opponents would go to a lighter sub-package look with him on the field and the Patriots would inevitably run right at it. The Buffalo and Denver games last year are good examples of that.
The good news is, the back-up depth the team assembled will be trying to step up and carve out a bigger piece of the pie in terms of playing time and being part of the offense. Going into camp and until Gronkowski returns the team will have three established veterans and two rookie undrafted free agents.
All of them possess different skill sets so their production will ultimately decide who stays and who goes before the Patriots travel to Buffalo in Week 1.
Roster Breakdown- Rob Gronkowski, Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui, Jake Ballard, Zach Sudfeld, Brandon Ford
Rob Gronkowski- Gronkowski remains the most complete tight end in the NFL; no one can match his production, big play ability and run blocking in one package. The only questions are, when will we see him back on the field and will he be the same player?
One would hope that the Patriots will err on the side of caution here and take their time with Gronkowski and not cave in to pressure and rush him back too early, even if the offense struggles in the early going.
Daniel Fells- Fells, a 6’4, 265 in-line blocking tight end has played for the Broncos, Rams and Falcons before coming to Foxboro last season. He played extensively during Gronkowski’s early absence but was jumped over on the depth chart by Hoomanawanui later.
He’s not much of a receiving threat evidenced by his only 4 receptions for 85 yards last season. He will be expected to provide more there this season however. His roster spot may hinge on his salary cap hit, he’s due $3 million over the next two years.
Michael Hoomanawanui- The 6’4, 263 “Hooman” as he’s known here, is another back-up tight end who was used more as a blocking tight end than receiving threat. After a slow start, he eclipsed Fells on the depth chart down the stretch.
Hooman didn’t have big numbers receiving in 14 games with 6 starts, hauling in just 4 passes for 109 yards. But he’s versatile, that Bill Belichick catch-word, he filled in for both Gronkowski as the “Y” tight-end, for Hernandez as the “Joker” split wide and in the backfield when the Patriots ran goal line and short-yardage packages.
As with anything else on the Patriots, the more you can do, the more they will use you and his roster slot should be pretty secure.
Jake Ballard- As everyone is now well aware, Ballard had a nice 2011 season, hauling in 38 passes for 604 yards and 4 TDs from Eli Manning during the Giants run to the Super Bowl. He blew out his knee against the Patriots in that game and the Pats snagged him off of waivers from the Giants following his injury.
Ballard is a huge (6’6, 275) target in the passing game and would play in the Gronk “Y” role. He doesn’t have Gronk’s speed and would not be the deep vertical threat, but has very sure hands and is able to snatch balls in traffic.
The only question now will be if he is completely healthy from his major surgery from 2011. In his first action in the spring, it was reported he was still a little stiff, which will bear watching as camp opens.
Zach Sudfeld- Sudfeld is an oft-injured but talented tight end who, if he can stay healthy and on the field can be a productive tight end in the Gronkowski mold.
He’s huge (6’7, 255) and was rated by some last season to be the best blocking tight end in the country, while hauling in 45 passes for 598 yards and 4 TDs at Nevada last year. During the spring OTAs and Mini-camps he shined, taking advantage of his getting a lot of work with the first team offense.
Sudfeld has lots of potential and will bear close watching during camp, and he’s easy to spot with the blonde ponytail hanging out the back of his helmet.
Brandon Ford- Ford a Clemson alum, was a very under-the-radar signing by the Patriots as another UDFA. Ford is a converted wide receiver and at 6’3, 240 is built more for the “Joker” role of Hernandez than in the traditional Gronk role.
Ford had a limited work load in the spring so his roster projection would definitely be considered as a dark horse project right now. But he’s athletic and could be used as an “H-Back” or even a fullback at times.
Conclusions- The team projection for camp is a far cry from the riches enjoyed the last few seasons but something to keep in mind is that Gronkowski will return this season and the players listed above don’t need to match all of the production the Gronk brings but as a stop-gap measure.
One thing that could still happen is to bring in another established veteran. The Patriots kicked the tires on Dallas Clark last off-season and it’s entirely possible for them to bring him again. He’s a perfect fit in the “Joker” role outside and could give some early season production for Tom Brady and the offense.
One other player to potentially watch would be WR Mark Harrison, an UDFA from Rutgers. Harrison like Ford has the size to play the “Joker” TE position and with a very crowded group of wide receivers fight for snaps, he could work himself into a roster slot.
Another thing is while the team will definitely miss the production from the “TE Party” early this year, the players they have now in camp have the potential to be just fine. They have guys who can block, catch and do both. We probably won’t see too many two tight end sets early this season but one can never say never when it comes to the Patriots.