The Patriots entered the spring with what seemed to be an unfair surplus at the tight end position.
At the top of the depth chart sat Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, two of the best tight ends the NFL had to offer. Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui, all former NFL starters, were set to compete for the reserve spots. A lot can change in four short months.
Now, Hoomanawanui may be the only player left of that group of five to actually suit up in Week 1 against Buffalo. Gronkowski is still hurt, Hernandez is in jail, and Fells and Ballard have been released. Zach Sudfeld sits atop the depth chart now with fullback/H-back James Develin also in the mix.
But the Patriots’ willingness to cut ties with two proven veteran tight ends bodes well for Gronkowski’s health. The All-Pro tight end was spotted on Monday jogging and running routes on the Revolution’s practice field while the majority of the Patriots were practicing up the hill on the main fields.
This was a big deal, since for weeks we had only seen Gronkowski standing on the sideline while the rest of his team participated in football activities. Though Bill Belichick insisted in Tuesday’s press conference that Gronkowski does the same thing every day, that’s not what the media has seen. Monday was different. It may not mean a whole lot, but it was a change.
There’s very little chance Gronkowski could be back for Week 1 against Buffalo, and frankly, he doesn’t need to be to avoid starting the season on the PUP list. New England begins the season against the Bills, Jets and Buccaneers. The Patriots can win those games without their star tight end.
It gets quite a bit more difficult after that three-game stretch, though. The Patriots have the Falcons, Bengals and Saints in the subsequent weeks. In order to win all or some of those games, the Patriots might need Gronkowski.
Since eight players will be inactive each week anyway, it’s worth the risk that Gronkowski won’t be ready in the first six weeks of the season to remove him from the PUP list and start him on the active roster. It appears that’s what the Patriots are ready to do, too. Otherwise, they likely would have kept either Ballard or Fells as insurance.
But it appears the Patriots are expecting to have Gronkowski back sooner rather than later. And until then, it appears they’re confident in their undrafted rookie Studfeld — I mean Sudfeld — and Hoomanawanui. Develin has practiced at fullback, H-back and tight end, so he could be part of the team’s plans, as well.