Patriots Tight End Depth Coming into Focus

Gronkowski hernandez

The uncertainty surrounding these two is real. Is it a real problem though? (Photo: US Presswire)

NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas

This offseason has been one to remember and one to forget for the New England Patriots. But it has been for reasons other than “Tebowmania” and “Ring Gate.”

It has been because of the tight end position.

UPDATE: The Patriots have released Aaron Hernandez.

The firestorm surrounding Aaron Hernandez has transcended football. Rob Gronkowski’s recovery from back surgery, while also very serious, has taken a back seat in contrast.

The reality is that Bill Belichick and Co. will head into training camp without any expectations of a two-headed monster at tight end. After all, there is no way to predict what the future holds for either of New England’s two 2010 draft picks.

Right now, the only certainty for the Patriots is that tight end depth is no longer a luxury.

It’s a necessity.

A couple months ago, the Patriots had more tight ends on the roster than wide receivers. It seemed a little outlandish at the time, seeing how Hernandez and Gronkowski still combined for 1,273 receiving yards and 17 total touchdowns in an injury-riddled 2012.

Hindsight is 20-20.

There are five additional tight ends on New England’s 90-man roster, and at least a few of that handful will be assuming more responsibilities in 2013 than originally thought.

Their importance is coming into focus.

For New England’s backup tight ends, training camp will be an audition. Each one has the potential to meet a need in the offense. That said, each one will have to meet a need to stick around Foxboro.

There are two undrafted rookies and three veterans in the assortment. The question facing all of them, however, is “how do you fit into the team’s plans?”

Let’s take a look at the candidates.

Jake Ballard — A year after cracking the New York Giants 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie out of Ohio State, Ballard enjoyed a very productive 2011. He caught 38 passes for a staggering 604 yards and four touchdowns before injuring his left knee against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. By now, we all know his story; we know how he snuck out from underneath the watchful eye of Giants head coach Tom Coughlin and ended up in New England. Now, it’s his turn to show what he has learned over his year in the system.  The 25-year-old Ballard has not played in a football game for over 16 months. Although at 6’6”, 275 pounds, Ballard is built to play a similar role to Gronkowski in the running and receiving game as a “Y” tight end. He’s not fast, but he’s strong and has sound hands. If one were to make way-too-early projection of the final roster, Ballard would be the favorite to nab an expanded role this season.

Daniel Fells — Entering his second season with the Patriots, what you see is what you get with the 29-year-old ex-Atlanta Falcon, St. Louis Ram and Denver Bronco. Fells played in 13 games in 2012, starting four and catching four passes for 85 yards. He’s not much of a receiving threat; he’s more so a third tight end with a niche for blocking. Fells’s greatest impact came during Gronkowski’s five-game absence last year, as he logged 132 offensive snaps primarily as an in-line tight end over that time, per Football Outsiders. Yet midway through December, the 6’4”, 265-pound Fells was eclipsed on the depth chart by a fellow reserve tight end. Due $3 million in base salary over the next two seasons, cites, Fells is not the most affordable contender in the fold.

Michael Hoomanawanui — Hoomanawanui was the “fellow reserve tight end” who eclipsed Fells late last season. The 24-year-old signed on with the Patriots in September after two years with the Rams, following in the footsteps of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels much like Fells did. Hoomanawanui started six contests and played in 14. The 6’4”, 263-pounder accumulated five receptions for 109 yards, but also served as a viable fullback in “21” personnel situations. In addition to lining up in the backfield, he has played in the absence of both Aaron Hernandez as a “Joker” tight end and Gronkowski as more of a “Y” tight end. Hoomanawanui is a utility man with enough interchangeability to remain in Belichick’s good graces.

Zach Sudfeld — A sixth-year senior who encountered multiple season-ending injuries during his career at the University of Nevada, Sudfeld was seen as damaged goods by most NFL teams. Despite a 2012 where he ranked as the best blocking tight end in the country and one of the most prolific red-zone targets, Sudfeld went undrafted before reached an agreement with the Patriots on April 27. The massive 6’7”, 255-pounder stood out during OTAs and minicamp. And he did so for more reasons than his ponytail. In a limited group of participating tight ends, the 24-year-old looked the part of a potential Gronkowski understudy. He has big upside as far as unselected rookies are considered. While he’s very much on the bubble, that’s not a bad place to be for a greenhorn who was written off by many just a year ago.

Brandon Ford — The most under-the-radar tight end in New England’s arsenal is undrafted Clemson University product Brandon Ford. He’s the “other” undrafted rookie at the position who has yet to grab many headlines because he has seen limited reps during Patriots workouts. Ford, a 6’3”, 240-pound converted wide receiver, got the chance to start for the Tigers after two years of backing up current Indianapolis Colt Dwayne Allen. Not built like your prototypical tight end, Ford is more so in the H-back or fullback mold. A gifted athlete who can line up in a variety of spots — from the slot to the backfield — the 23-year-old is pushing for an opportunity to fulfill a Hernandez-like “Joker” role in New England’s offense.

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13 Responses to “Patriots Tight End Depth Coming into Focus”

  1. PSW says:

    Hernandez is gone forever, he’s gonna be doing multiple life sentences if all the stuff I’ve seen on tv is true. Hopefully Jake Hoomi Sudfeld and Ford can do the job

  2. charles says:

    Don’t forget about tebow he’ll definitely play a few snaps at te this year as wee as Hback, fullback, and continuing to develop at qb

  3. acm says:

    just bring in D. Clark, if he is still available. He has the experience and know-how in similar offenses to replace Hernandez till the Pats can draft another TE next year.

    I was really hoping they’d go after Keller earlier this year. He would have been pretty handy right about now.

  4. MaineMan says:

    Ford, Tebow and Hernandez are all roughly the same size (around 6’3″/240-250). Tebow post, by far, the best workout numbers of the three. Even Sudfeld at nearly 6’7″ matched Ford’s numbers. Also, I haven’t found any evidence that Ford lined up in the backfield for Clemson and he’s credited with no rushes in his four years there, so I’m not seeing what the projection to H-back is based on.

    I’m certainly no Tebowmaniac, but he at least has demonstrated some significant rushing chops and is more or less an NFL veteran. If he can block and catch and is willing to forgo playing QB, it seems like he’d be a much better candidate for the H-back spot than Ford if athleticism and size are the considerations.

    • Dennis says:

      Brandon Ford does have the makeup on paper to replace Hernandez… He was originally a WR at Clemson before bulking up and helping with the TE depth… He blocked from multiple positions (h-back, TE, WR, FB) in the zone read option style offense, was a 3rd or 4th option in the spread, most receptions and touchdowns came from h-back position in the red zone… As a former WR he obviously has good speed, athleticism, route running, hands and IQ in the passing game… Experience lining up in many different areas… Needs to get stronger, become a better blocker, nowhere close to the shiftiness of Hernanez…

  5. Bill says:

    Now that Hernandez is gone, the what’s next question may be nothing until teams start cutting down to their 53 man rosters. Gronk will be back, so TE is not a complete disaster. Hernandez was never known for blocking, their are 3-4 UDFA who are TE or bigWR who may stick around. HooMan may get a big chance to show his stuff. HOF’er Tom Brady will certainly have a chance to show he is the best of his generation if he can produce with this crew.
    The good news is this team can still win 10-11 games if Brady is what he is.

  6. Russell Easterbrooks says:

    I agree with Trev , I think Gronk goes on Pup reserve and is out the first 6 games. Hernandez is up in the air right now, but I would not be surprised if he gets cut, after pre-season. Ballard makes the team, as well as Sudfeld. I’m not a big fan of Fells, and there is money to be saved if he’s cut. Hoomanawanui, may see a larger role in the Offence. Ford looks like P squad, as Bill will surely keep a TE on the P-squad.
    I like Dallas Clark, and can see him fitting in the Patriots Offence, and feel we’ll see him as a Patriot soon.

  7. Bill says:

    I have a bad feeling that Hernandez may never play football especially for Patriots. And if has any knowledge of this killing and is mum on it because of some gang loyalty, then he deserves everything he gets.

    Patriots will recover from Hernandez, and if Gronk can get back for last half do season, we’ll all see if Bill Belichek is really a genious or riding Tom Brady into fame.

  8. CC says:

    Why no coverage/mention of A-Hern on this site yet…………….

  9. JB111 says:

    I don’t think we will ever see Hernandez again in any uniform. I believe he has done to much wrong for any team to take. Character issues seem to be a big deal in this NFL.

  10. Trevor M. says:

    If Gronk is on the PUP, won’t he be unable to attend practices and such? I think because of that it is more likely he won’t start the season on PUP. Since he should be fully recovered before Week 2.

    Hernandez is probably looking at a 6 game suspension which will be appealed down to 4 games.

    Either way, these replacement-level TEs look decent to start the season off with. I like Suds and Ballard though Ballard was supposedly “stiff” in OTAs.

    • Trev says:

      That’s a very optimistic outlook for Hernandez. I still think he will be lucky to avoid serious jail time. Even if he does get lucky and not have to serve any time, I could see Goodell cracking down pretty hard with a pretty lengthy suspension. I hope you are right. Time will tell…

  11. Trev says:

    Nice breakdown. Is it nuts to think that we could have 2 rookie UDFA TEs on the 53 Man Roster? I think Gronk could be placed on the PUP list for the first 6 games, and in light of Hernandez’s situation I’m not counting on him to be there either. Ballard likely makes it, and if Sudfeld continues to impress then I think he makes it as well. I think Ford is a wild-card, but his physical characteristics kind of resemble those of Hernandez. If he can grasp the offense and show some promise, I think he is a dark-horse to make the team if Hernandez is in fact unavailable. Should be fun to watch.

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