FOXBORO, Mass. — Every tight end on the Patriots’ roster has been asked about getting increased reps at practice with Rob Gronkowski out with his back injury and Aaron Hernandez gone. And all have answered with some form of “I’m just trying to work hard and get better every day.”
They won’t say it, but it’s valuable for Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui, Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford to run more routes and take more snaps. And although they won’t expound upon the increased participation, Bill Belichick will.
“As always, unfortunately, when the players that are on your team can’t perform, it gives more opportunities to somebody else, wherever that is,” Belichick said. “Then what those people can do with that opportunity, sometimes it comes at different levels but we’ve all seen it be, the people take advantage of those opportunities. I think that Mike Hooman and Zach have done that. They’ve worked hard, they’ve certainly taken advantage of the reps that they’ve gotten and they’ve definitely gotten more because some of the players that would normally be at the position weren’t participating. That’s good for them.”
Ballard is taking more reps with Tom Brady than any tight end on the roster. If Gronkowski can’t start the season, Ballard would likely take on the role as the team’s starting tight end. As the rhetoric goes, Ballard is just trying to get better in Gronkowski’s absence.
“I feel like I have a good opportunity to be on this team, and there are a lot of things going on, but I’m not worried about that,” Ballard said Friday. “I’m just worried about myself and what I can do, and how I can get better every day.”
Belichick said there wasn’t much risk in signing Ballard last season after the tight end had torn his ACL in the Super Bowl. The head coach saw a good player available and snatched him up, even if he had to sit a year.
“He was a starting tight end in the National Football League,” Belichick said. “I don’t think it was a big gamble. He was a good player at a young age. We played against him. He was a good player. He was available. “
There should be healthy competition for the starting role or roles this season if Gronkowski has to miss time. Hoomanawanui, Fells and Ballard have all been starting tight ends in the league, and Sudfeld hasn’t looked like a rookie during the spring or summer so far.
“We’ve got a lot of capable tight ends right now, and we’re going to do whatever they ask us to do,” Ballard said Friday. “It’s not like the tight end’s a disappearing position. … I’m not worried about the other guys as much as what I can do to improve.”
Belichick has seen improvement from the fourth-year tight end, especially in recovering from the ACL tear he suffered in Feb. 2012.
“I think he has good, solid, physical characteristics; works hard, smart kid, he’s got a good attitude, works hard on his preparation and he’s worked very hard on his rehab,” Belichick said. “I’d say it’s great for him to be able to make that kind of progress, get back out on the field, attain that goal of just being able to get back out and play competitively on a field.”
Belichick used (or didn’t use) one of his favorite metaphors when talking about the tight ends replacing Gronkowski. But the Patriots head coach said now is the time for the tight ends to be taking advantage of their opportunities.
“I don’t want to say this is Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig, but that’s the classic story,” Belichick said smiling. “We’ve all gotten opportunities because of one reason or another, of something that happened to somebody who was in front of us and being able to take advantage of those opportunities is — it’s there if they can do it.”
Sudfeld isn’t concentrating on how he’s getting his reps, he’s just happy to be playing football. The undrafted rookie dealt with multiple injuries at Nevada, but excelled in his senior season. It wasn’t enough to get drafted, but Sudfeld looks like a natural out on the practice field so far. He’s also fallen in well with the Patriot Way of saying all the right things.
“Well, I think that no matter what, my mentality coming in was just to go out and compete and do my best, really,” Sudfeld said. “Regardless of what happens with any other situations — so I feel very fortunate to just have an opportunity to be here with the Patriots organization and play.”
Fells didn’t want to talk about taking first team reps while Gronkowski is out, but he did say the increased participation was good to get him back in game shape. The Patriots had nearly a month and a half between minicamp and training camp.
“You know, a little rusty,” Fells said. “Just trying to get a feel and knock the rust off, get back into the flow of things, go out here and showcase what we can all do.”
Fells received praise from his head coach for how he performed during OTAs and minicamp. Fells is not only taking snaps inline at tight end, but also split out wide in Hernandez’s old spot.
“He had a good spring. It looks like he’s in good condition,” Belichick said. “I’m sure that he’s looking to build on his spring here and full training camp and feel the same way.”
Fells only took 338 snaps with the Patriots last season. He played heavily while Gronkowski and Hernandez were out but he was sharing time with his former teammate in St. Louis, Hoomanawanui. With Hernandez gone, Fells has a chance to take on an increased role. If he can beat out Sudfeld, Hoomanawanui and Ballard, that is.
“I’m a competitor, so I wanted to go out there and compete,” Fells said about last season. “I wish I could have participated a little bit more. Ultimately, they’re going to put whoever on the field that they see fit. So I gotta show them that I’m fit enough to do it.”
Competition can breed success out on the football field, and even if Gronkowski isn’t out there, the Patriots have competition to spare at the tight end position.