New England's tight ends were involved in a
chicken-or-egg argument last season. Statistically speaking, they were hardly
more useful than a car without wheels. But, on the other hand, how could they
catch the ball when they weren’t exactly used in passing routes?
In any event, the Patriots did away with Ben Watson and
Chris Baker this offseason, and they were replaced with Alge Crumpler and
rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Now,
how can the Patriots get more production out of their tight ends?
The first recommendation would be to — sit down for this
one — throw the ball to them. To be fair, it's not like Watson and Baker are
on the same planet as Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten, so the Patriots didn’t
need to draw up game plans to get them the ball. However, the Patriots
struggled through most of the season to get the ball to anyone not named Wes
Welker and Randy Moss, so it should have been worth it to at least put in a
little extra effort.
Last season, Watson and Baker combined for 43 catches
(11.0 percent of the team's total production), 546 yards (12.0 percent) and
seven touchdowns (25.0 percent of receiving touchdowns). Baker was released in
the offseason, and the Patriots predictably chose to let Watson leave in free
That made way for Crumpler, a 33-year-old who is entering
his 10th NFL season. He was a pass-catching machine in his heyday, but he's a
block-first tight end at this stage of his career — and a damn fine one at
that. Crumpler helped pave the way for Titans running back Chris Johnson's
2,006-yard season in 2009.
Also, the tight end has transformed himself into — our
sincerest apologies — exactly that, immersing himself into a conditioning
program that helped him trim pounds and pounds of excess fat. Whether that
helps Crumpler's route-running remains to be seen, but at this point, the
Patriots should consider him strictly as a blocker. They used a number of
formations last season with six offensive linemen, and that severely hampers a
team's versatility on a given play. With Crumpler in the fold, the Patriots can
get back to a more traditional offensive look with their heavy sets.
Gronkowski, a 6-foot-6, 265-pounder, is a more
well-rounded tight end who can block and catch. He caught 47 passes for 672
yards and 10 touchdowns during his 2008 season (2009 was wiped out due to a
back injury), and he'll be a massive target for Tom Brady. Eventually, the
feeling here is Gronkowski will emerge as New England's primary tight end due
to his resourcefulness in both areas. If he pans out, the Patriots might
actually have their version of Witten.
Hernandez is a different type of tight end who could
shape up to be a hybrid wide receiver. He's 6-foot-1 and 250 pounds, so he'll
have a tough time shedding blocks if he's lined up off tackle. If Hernandez
does line up along the line, it will probably offset — angled toward the
backfield — from a second tight end to help him spring into his route. He'll
also line up in the slot, which will be beneficial on runs because he'll have
the chance to swallow up a defensive back or chip an outside linebacker.
On paper, the Patriots appear to have the perfect
complement of tight ends — the blocker, the receiver and the do-it-all player.
That gives them plenty of options and a chance to utilize a new stable of
formations. Now, it's up to them to actively get the tight ends more involved.
NESN.com will be answering one Patriots question every day until
July 11: If they need Brian Hoyer,
can he do it?
July 13: Is Bill Belichick taking
on too much responsibility?