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 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 Spotrac.com, 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.