Patriots Tight End Breakdown: Six Deep in Final Week of OTAs

Asa Watson is one of five Patriots tight ends vying for a roster spot behind Rob Gronkowski. (USA Today Sports Images)

NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas

The New England Patriots entered the final week of organized team activities with five tight ends on the 90-man roster. But by the time Monday’s session drew to a close, so did the tenure of undrafted rookie wide receiver Derrick Johnson.

A sixth tight end was signed in his place.

It’s unknown how long the untested group will carry that allotment. What is known is that two OTAs separate the Patriots from mandatory minicamp, and three minicamp practices separate the Patriots from a month-long summer break.

Between now and then, moves will be made on the back end of the roster. Many will depart from Gillette Stadium on June 19 without the surety that they’ll return for training camp on July 16.

Yet within that uncertainty lies competition. And at tight end, where the average age is just 24 years old, there’s no shortage of opportunity for it.

While young, three of New England’s tight ends were the 53-man roster at one point in time last season. The trio combined for 20 regular-season appearances, 51 receptions, 728 yards and five touchdowns over than 16-game span.

Conversely, the other three haven’t played a regular-season snap. Two were in college in 2013, another was a free agent.

In turn, the pedigree of the six-man collection is as varied as their recent pasts suggest.

Only one tight end on New England’s roster – a certain former second-round pick – was drafted by the organization. As for the other five, it’s been a different journey.

Two signed on as former fifth-round selections of other teams; one signed as a former undrafted free agent-turned-first-year player; two others find themselves in Foxborough as undrafted rookies.

The assortment is without significant receiving power beyond its onetime draft choice. That reality grew prominent when the Patriots war room opted to address other areas in lieu of tight end during the 2014 NFL draft.

Regardless, drafted or undrafted, each tight end has to stick out to stay around. That is easier said than done. One manner in which each candidate can do so is by utilizing their size and athleticism to carve roles.

The depth chart measures in at a collective 6’4” and 256 pounds. Yet in actually, their heights and weights are scattered all across the board.

The six stand in at 6’2”, 6’3”, 6’4”, 6’5”, 6’6” and 6’8”, respectively. When each one steps on the scale, the digits range from 237 pounds to 277 pounds.

Nevertheless, how that size translates is based on the player.

In terms of the athletic testing recorded at scouting combines, as well as regional combines and pro days over the last several years, three tight ends lead the Patriots position in a key category.

One of whom led in four categories.

Now physical and athletic traits are not the be-all and end-all in deciding a tight end’s abilities on the football field, but those matters do often factor into deciding a tight end’s alignment on the football field.

Four of New England’s tight ends are primarily inline “Y” options who can step into the seam, while the other two are more so offline “F” options who can work in space.

Some are best cut out for blocking; others are best cut out for catching. And here is where the numbers meet the names.

Rob Gronkowski – 6’6”, 265 Pounds, Age 25, Fifth Year, Arizona

After sitting out the first six weeks of the 2013 season while recovering from back and forearm surgeries, Rob Gronkowski returned to the lineup in Week 7 and went on to tally 39 receptions for 592 yards and four touchdowns over his next seven games. Yet in Week 14 against the Cleveland Browns, the two-time All-Pro saw his fourth NFL season end with one overhead catch down the seam.

It’s been six months since the 2010 second-round pick tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee. And the reports on his prognosis have been encouraging. Even so, the 25-year-old’s timetable for return remains a cautious one. Gronkowski has accounted for more touchdowns through four regular seasons than any tight end in NFL history. He’s done so despite missing 12 games over the last two regular seasons.

Michael Hoomanawanui – 6’4”, 260 Pounds, Age 25, Fifth Year, Illinois

Michael Hoomanawanui  played in 13 games during the 2013 regular season, starting 10. Largely without Gronkowski, the 25-year-old charted the sixth-most snaps of any player in the Patriots offense over that span. He caught 12 passes for 136 yards with the high-volume workload, but he also served as a competitive blocker in the running game.

Although the former St. Louis Rams fifth-round pick has accumulated a modest 17 receptions for 245 yards and a touchdown during his two years in New England, his willingness to do more than catch passes earned him a two-year, $2.40 million contract this offseason, cites Spotrac.com.

D.J. Williams – 6’2”, 245 Pounds, Age 25, Fourth Year, Arkansas

A teammate of quarterback Ryan Mallett at Arkansas, D.J. Williams was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. After two seasons in Green Bay, Williams was waived during the final cuts of 2013 and awarded to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

In November, the 25-year-old was released by Jacksonville and signed with the Patriots to fill the third tight end spot. Williams was released and re-signed by New England before the year’s conclusion, logging 15 snaps over two regular-season appearances, per Pro Football Focus. A “Move” receiver who clocked a 4.59 40-yard dash during the pre-draft process in the spring of 2011, Williams has caught nine passes for 70 yards in 35 career games.

Justin Jones – 6’8”, 277 Pounds, Age 22, Rookie, East Carolina

It’s hard to overlook East Carolina’s Justin Jones. A 6’8”, 277-pound three-year starter, Jones amassed 52 receptions for 598 yards and 12 touchdowns over his Pirates career before being ruled academically ineligible for his redshirt senior season of 2013. In 2012, he played in 13 contests and started five, reeling in 25 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns.

The 22-year-old went undrafted in May before signing with the Patriots. His 4.9-second 40-yard dash speed and long frame have helped defenders dishevel his routes and blocking duties off the line of scrimmage. But as a tight end who looks the part of a red-zone mismatch, his 37-inch vertical jump – showcased at Detroit’s regional combine – only accentuates that notion. Jones has experience playing both on the line and in the seam.

Asa Watson – 6’3”, 237 Pounds, Age 23, Rookie, North Carolina State

The younger brother of former Patriots first-round pick Ben Watson, Asa Watson was signed by the Patriots shortly after May’s draft. The North Carolina State product played in 36 collegiate games over five years, compiling 29 receptions for 351 yards and one touchdown in the process.

Watson redshirted in 2011 after undergoing heart surgery for Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, which causes the ventricles of the heart to prematurely contract. He fought back onto the field for the Wolfpack in 2012, earning five starts within the two-tight end set.  And as a fifth-year graduate student in 2013, the 23-year-old was named starter, but his season ended with three catches as N.C. State transitioned to a spread offense. Watson ran a 4.69-second 40-yard dash at his pro day and is in the mold of an H-back.

Kyle Auffray – 6’5”, 254 Pounds, Age 27, First-Year Player, New Hampshire

In an all-Colonial Athletic Association transaction, the University of New Hampshire’s Kyle Auffray was signed as the University of Maine’s Derrick Johnson was released on June 9. The former Mississippi State quarterback transferred to Durham, N.H., in 2008 and converted to tight end. He went on to play in 16 games for the Wildcats – including one at Gillette – catching four passes for 34 yards and a touchdown as a blocking tight end. He also punted 71 times for 2,679 yards as a senior, bouncing 18 punts inside the 20-yard line, in addition to a 67-yard long.

Auffray went undrafted in April of 2011 but reemerged two years later at Dallas Super Regional Combine. It was there that he posted a 4.57-second 40-yard dash, a 6.72 three-cone drill, a 4.15 20-yard shuttle and 28 bench reps of 225 pounds. Auffray proceeded to have a private workout with the Patriots, according to Lou Musto of Cover32.com, before signing with the Arizona Cardinals. The 27-year-old was released by Arizona late in July.

Time will determine where he and the rest of New England’s tight ends end up this July.

Tags: Asa Watson, D.J. Williams, Justin Jones, Kyle Auffray, Michael Hoomanawanui, Patriots Tight Ends, Rob Gronkowski

24 Responses to “Patriots Tight End Breakdown: Six Deep in Final Week of OTAs”

  1. J H TARBORO says:

    Although it hasn’t been talked about we might just have a move TE/H-back already here in New England in form of FB James Devlin, who has done quite well in OTAs and mini camp at TE. Devlin was a DE in college and understands both sides of the ball, he may emerge as a possible TE candidate once camp starts. Devlin could be a breakout star as FB/TE/H-back if develops a killer instinct and wants the ball in his hands in crunch time. I suggest he watch tape on some of the best FB that played this game such as Jim Brown, John Riggins, Mike Alstott etc. The FB and TE position is linked and it’s what you do once the ball is in your hands. This should be a great story during official camp.

  2. Bob henne says:

    Hope Kyle Auffory makes the team. He has great stats.

  3. PSW says:

    I don’t expect much from TE this year. In fact with all the WR’s in camp and the jumbo linemen drafted, I think we are going to see a power running game with a 3wr spread set to prevent 8 in the box defenses. Edelman, Lafell, and Dobsen starting (IF all healthy) with Boyce and Amendola off the bench and Slater special team ace listed with the recievers. If one of the younger recievers shows something special they might nock Amendola off the roster.

    • Kevan says:

      I think if all is healthy Amendola is a starter, health is his only downfall. No one is knocking him off the roster that’s for sure. His money is guaranteed so it would be pointless to get rid of him. In fact, the pats would lose more money by releasing him.

    • DMC413 says:

      PSW,
      I don’t think the DBL TE formation will be our bread and butter like in the past however more of an option with the same potency as before but used in a more diversified offense. Often heard of Patriot’s game to game “game plan” will serve as the offense we will see this year, allowing BB to analyze the opponent for that week and plan accordingly. Some weeks we will see a 3WR/2RB, which I would love to see… But then other weeks we may get a heavy dose of the 2TE set.

      Every one is all up in arms because we didn’t draft a high end TE or sign any vet FA’s, here’s the thing barring “INJURY” if healthy we already have the personnel for it. Gronk being the #1 or 2 TE in the league( thats a different argument). But DJ Williams had a very productive collegiate career not to mention the same measurables as some other guy with tattoos, know that he’s had a few yrs in the league hopefully this is the year he puts it all together. Looking at Auffray who could offer alot. The latter two TE’s mentioned are not #1 guys but could play a major role as role players with Gronk on the field at the same time. Speaking of Gronk I think he will be used very sparringly this year and not targeted as much like in the past by TB, coupled with a more diversified offense will play a major role in defenses not be able to key in on him and clog the middle up but when the formation is dialed up by McDaniels it will deliver.

      So my TE’s that make the roster are:
      1. Gronk
      2. DJ Williams
      3. Auffray
      4. Maybe Jones!?!?!?!

      If my ideology is right in regards to the offense, don’t be surprised to see that “4WR” set w/ all 4WR’s(seeing it appears the final roster will have a high # of WR’s on it) or a 4WR set made up of 2WR’s and 2TE’s on the field(allowing TB to audible based on the defense), Tom is at his best in this formation!!!!

      • Kevan says:

        What about the Hooman? He isn’t flashy but I think he will improve and make the team. Outside of gronk he is the best blocking TE the pats got.

        • DMC413 says:

          Keevan,

        • DMC413 says:

          Keevan,
          You right Hoo-man is almost a shoe-in. Looking at my previous list I would have to bump him to number 2 and have everyone move down the list knocking Jones off
          completely.

      • GM-in-Training says:

        You’ve got to have a good blocking TE that can back up Gronk. Lots of running plays need a mobile blocker TE/FB type that can move into the LB space and contain a LB.

        Hooman knows the offense and is a mobile blocker.

        Aufrey has the measurables, supposedly than hands, maybe the smarts, and we’ll see if he can really do the blocking and route running.

        Jones is a project that I’d really like to see the Pats develop. Last year the Pats tried to put Sudfeld on the practice squad and didn’t get away with it. I hope the Jones shows enough promise that it’s justifiable putting him on the 53-man roster.

        • DMC413 says:

          GM…
          There’s video footage of Auffray, showed a good amount of catching and run blocking, I was impressed to say the least.

  4. JackT says:

    I was rooting for Jones because we had such an uninspiring draft, but with the inclusion of Watson and Auffrey, wow, it looks like serious competition has broken out for spots on the team and the practice squad. Will have to trust the coaches to make the right choices. Time to fish or cut bait as they say here in Maine.

  5. JackT says:

    As a lifelong LD runner I’m here to tell you these 40 yd times are meaningless without knowing the player’s past history and training regimen. Forget the quick twitch theorists. Most players avoid distance running like the plague and concentrate on the weight room. Those 40 yd times can be improved dramatically, however it takes years not months, and many runners usually don’t peak until they hit their thirties. The weight room plays a part if the right exercises are included, still many miles have to be logged on the road to build cardio efficiency. This is the reason I love Houston. From watching his weight training you can see it has been centered around building his acceleration and explosion. His cardio’s been outstanding in games. I could be wrong but it tells me he’s devoted much of his training to road work outside of the weight room. Wasn’t it Ridley who gassed out on a +40 yard jaunt last year? How does that happen to a pro football player?

    • DMC413 says:

      Didn’t know much about Houston until I watched some footage on him, I was very impressed to say the least… His speed in hitting the holes, agile enough when needed and his pass catching was very intriguing! I try not to get to worked up when it comes to college athletes coming to the NFL but he is the exception and I think he’ll prove me right when he gets his chance.

  6. Stephen J says:

    Here is another interesting article on Kyle Auffray

    http://sidelineupdate.com/2014/01/12/free-agent-focus-kyle-auffray/

    Highlights a connection to Chip Kelly. I like his mentality and perseverance.
    It mentions he has a high football IQ as well

    Out of the 3 Undrafted TE’s I would say
    1 Kyle Auffray
    2 Asa Watson
    3 Justin Jones
    possibly does enough to stick around
    As far as DJ Williams goes its time to shine or be shown the door

    • Jack says:

      I like Auffray the best of the three as well. I saw a video of his highlights, and what stood out is that he was actually flattening guys on a regular basis with his blocking. I also like that he’s a former QB, similar to Edelman and to an extent Welker (“thinks like a quarterback”), so he could maybe quickly get in synch with Brady. Then of course there are his amazing measureables. I’m not so high on Jones due to the fact that he apparently had trouble getting separation in OTAs, and of course the academic suspension doesn’t bode well either. As far as Watson, his numbers weren’t overwhelming, but who knows?

      • Stephen J says:

        On Watson’s numbers he wasn’t given many opportunities due to his health condition. He could be good but like you said who knows. Haven’t heard anything on him in the recent OTA’s and with the depleted TE you would think this is where he could gain some recognition.

        • Jack says:

          Yeah, I read today that’s he’s not really showing anything so far. I don’t anticipate that he’ll make the team, but it’s still very early. On Auffray, he looked like he had nice routes and clean catches, too, but it’s such a small sample size.

        • Stephen J says:

          Jack about Auffray and it being a small sample size. Still fairly new to the position so still some rawness to him at age 27 but I like that he has some experience in Chip Kelly’s system up paced quick tempo. Seems like he is a quick learner so hopefully he catches on quickly.

  7. Jim R says:

    Really hope Jones makes the roster and is productive in short yardage red zone situations

    • Stephen J says:

      I like Jones height and leaping ability for catching in red zone but will that be enough to overcome his learning curve and not being all that smart. I’m not sure that will be enough but I am rooting for him

    • GM-in-Training says:

      My question is can Jones learn to block? Route running might not be crucial since he’s mostly going to just high point his catches 11′ up in the air.

      Blocking, though, is crucial to keep the defenses honestly defending against the run. He’s got the size and the strength, but his build is better for pass blocking than run blocking or stunt blocking, and apparently he just hasn’t gotten good enough at the fundamentals.






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