NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
The two combined for 87 catches, 1,109 receiving yards, and 16 touchdowns as rookies and both players substantially improved their production in 2011, ending up making 169 catches for 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns.
New England’s offensive scheme last season was heavily focused on getting both Gronkowski and Hernandez the ball as much as possible, yet nonetheless New England enters the 2012 season having added a number of tight ends to the roster, most notably Daniel Fells, Jake Ballard and Visanthe Shiancoe.
Daniel Fells was the first addition the Patriots made to the tight end position. Fells entered the league in 2006 out of UC Davis as an undrafted free agent signing by the Atlanta Falcons and joined the St. Louis Rams in 2008.
The Patriots previously attempted to sign Fells as a free agent in early 2010 but the tight end opted to re-sign with St. Louis, where he enjoyed his most productive season to date in the NFL: 41 receptions for 391 yards and two touchdowns over six starts. In 2011, Fells played for the Denver Broncos and assumed additional blocking responsibilities, grabbing just 19 passes in an offense which grew increasingly more run-oriented after Tim Tebow supplanted Kyle Orton as Denver’s starting quarterback in midseason.
Despite Fells’ slip in production, New England was willing to sign him to a three-year, $5.25 million contract in March which included $2 million in guaranteed money. Fells has yet to see the practice field in New England and is currently on the physically-unable-to-perform list while rehabbing from a leg injury.
Upon his return, Fells will likely be slotted behind Rob Gronkowski as the team’s backup inline tight end, the “Y” spot. Fells originally began his collegiate career at wide receiver but has steadily added weight to his frame and is now listed by New England at 6’4″ and 265 pounds. Fells does not offer much in terms of athleticism (he ran a 4.95 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in 2006) but is an adequate blocker with reliable hands and will offer New England depth and flexibility at the tight end position.
The Patriots added to the position yet again on June 12th, when New England claimed Jake Ballard off of waivers from the New York Giants. New York had assumed that Ballard would clear waivers and were planning on placing him on their own physically-unable-to-perform list. Ballard appeared in just one game in 2010, but last season made 13 starts for the Giants at tight end and compiled a 38 – 604 – 4 line at the position. The 6’6″, 275 pound Ballard had perhaps his best game of the season in New York’s 24-20 regular season victory over the Patriots, catching four passes for 67 yards, including two key plays on the Giants’ final drive: a 28-yard grab on third down as well as the game-winning touchdown.
However, during the Super Bowl Ballard tore his left ACL and meniscus and underwent microfracture/ACL reconstruction surgery this past offseason. Ballard is currently on New England’s PUP list and will be unable to play until midseason at the earliest; missing the entire season is not out of the question.
Even if Ballard is unable to play in 2012, New England was wise to claim him on waivers because of his cheap salary for the season ($540,000) and the fact that he will become an exclusive-rights free agent in the offseason; at that point, New England would be able to determine whether or not to offer him an exclusive-rights tender of one year and what would roughly amount to another $540,000.
Ballard would be eligible for restricted free agency in the following season, allowing New England to match any offers from other teams or receive compensation in the form of draft picks. Ballard was not a particularly mobile target even before suffering his knee injury, but the move involves only a minor financial investment for a 24 year-old with size, strength, and reliable hands.
On July 25th, Visanthe Shiancoe agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the Patriots worth $1.2 million, including $400,000 guaranteed; Shiancoe could earn another $800,000 if he reaches certain incentives.
The 32 year-old tight end had also received an offer from the Philadelphia Eagles and worked out for the Seattle Seahawks as well. While the other two tight ends New England signed more readily project as inline tight ends, Shiancoe is more of a receiving option whose blocking ability has declined in recent years. Nonetheless, Shiancoe has averaged 45 receptions over the past four seasons; in 2011, he caught 36 passes for 409 yards and three touchdowns.
While Shiancoe’s signing may have been motivated in part by the unavailability of not only Fells and Ballard but also undrafted free agent Brad Herman (injured reserve), the amount of guaranteed money he received suggests that he has a realistic chance of making the final 53-man roster. Shiancoe has reportedly looked athletic in training camp and will likely be slotted behind Aaron Hernandez on the depth chart at the team’s “F” tight end position. New England used some three-TE sets in 2010 and 2011, so Shiancoe should see the field for a fairly significant amount of snaps this year, especially if Daniel Fells is on the PUP list at the beginning of the season.