How much do Patriots still value the tight end position?
When the Patriots drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the 2010 NFL Draft, it signaled to many a change in offensive philosophy. New England wanted to go back to the future, to give Tom Brady as many options as possible in the middle of the field. Relying on the big play capabilities of Randy Moss on the outside was no longer important – the Patriots were implying with their actions – and not so surprisingly, they traded Moss in October of 2010.
For several years, Bill Belichick certainly looked as though he was on to something as Gronkowski and Hernandez provided nightmarish matchup problems for defenses. Gronk had 10 touchdown grabs in 2010, 17 in 2011 and 11 in 2012. Hernandez had six TDs in 2010, seven in 2011 and five in 2012. But Gronkowski’s career has been interrupted by injury, and Hernandez is currently in a jail cell. The Patriots are now adjusting on the fly, and over four years removed from their decision to go “tight end first,” it’s unclear as to what the philosophy is now.
Truth be told, it’s difficult to imagine the Pats finding another tight end with the skill set of Hernandez anytime soon. This was a player that lined up in the Patriots backfield at times as Belichick looked to take advantage of Hernandez’s unique agility at 6-foot-1, 245 pounds. Gronkowski, at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, is more like the stereotypical tight end. He’s burly, is an exceptional blocker and has tremendous hands.
Make no mistake, the Patriots will utilize Gronkowski to the nth degree if he’s healthy this season. But will New England’s offense be more tempted to go to a player like Brandon LaFell on the outside this year? Or will it focus mainly on Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola in the slot? Those options seem to be more likely than the Patriots focusing first and foremost on their tight ends.
It’s likely that the Pats will carry only two traditional tight ends on their roster in Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui. The team dismissed rookie tight ends Asa Watson and Justin Jones after their first preseason game against the Redskins but signed three tight ends in the wake of that initial transaction as Ben Hartsock, Steve Maneri and Terrence Miller are now on board.
Hartsock is the best bet to squeeze onto the Pats’ roster by Week 1 as the former Carolina Panther is known for his exceptional blocking. Just don’t expect Hartsock to be one of Brady’s favorite targets. Hartsock caught just two passes in 43 games with Carolina the past three seasons.
Follow Metro Boston sports editor Matt Burke on Twitter: @BurkeMetroBOS