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.