If Rob Gronkowski doesn’t start the season on the PUP list, it could shake up the positional battle at tight end.
Adam Schefter reported on NFL Insiders this week that the buzz is positive regarding Gronkowski’s recovery from back surgery. Schefter went as far as to say Gronkowski is likely to avoid the PUP list to start the season.
If Gronkowski is healthy enough to avoid the PUP, which would have kept him from playing the first six weeks of the season, the Patriots will likely carry four tight ends on their roster. If Gronkowski has to start the season on the PUP, the team could carry either three or four tight ends.
It appears there may be some increased competition at the position this summer, though. Before we knew Gronkowski’s health was looking good, it seemed like Daniel Fells, Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui and Zach Sudfeld were all safe for the 53-man roster. Now, though, one of those players could be left off.
All four players have received equal time with the first-team offense. Fells is probably the best blocker out of the group, Sudfeld is by far the most explosive, Hoomanawanui is the most versatile and Ballard has the best history of success in the NFL.
While no player in that group is entirely safe, the real battle may come down to Fells, who seemed to fail to fully grasp the offense last season, and Ballard, who has been limping throughout training camp as he tries to recover from a torn ACL suffered in Super Bowl XLVI against the Patriots.
The Patriots carried as many as to five tight ends on the roster last season, but that was while the team was mostly playing with 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends). With Aaron Hernandez gone, the team is likely to play more 11 and 21 personnel with just one tight end on the field.
In the past, when the Patriots didn’t have such a tight end-heavy offense, they would carry as few as just two tight ends. While it’s unlikely they go with just two this year, it’s possible they carry just three once Gronkowski is healthy.
Sudfeld has the most upside and the most potential to replace Hernandez in the flex role. He’s considerably quicker and faster than Fells, Hoomanawanui and Ballard, and he’s lined up in the slot at times during training camp.
Hoomanawanui can play fullback and H-back, which will likely be appealing to Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick, who still seem to value the run-blocking role. Hoomanawanui and Fells received nearly equal snaps last season while Gronkowski and Hernandez were injured during separate times.
Fells and Ballard play similar roles in the offense. They’re both limited athletically but have receiving ability, though they’re better known for their blocking skills. Fells has looked like the better player during training camp, but he didn’t contribute much in the passing game last season.
With a full season with the offense under his belt, Fells could be more productive this season. But Ballard, who was impressive in 2011, his only full season, will surely be biting at his heels if his knee can ever get to 100 percent.
Tight ends may not be as heavily involved in the offense this season, but the Patriots will be absolutely loaded at the position once Gronkowski is healthy. There will be one or two quality players cut either before Week 1 or during the season.
So far, it appears a little competition has made all the players better. Sudfeld, Hoomanawanui and Fells have all shined at times during training camp.