FOXBORO, Mass. — Rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have added a completely different element to the New England offense, and their success in Thursday's preseason game against the Falcons was simply a byproduct of their excellent training camp.
The Patriots got so little production out of their tight ends in 2009 that they decided to completely overhaul the group — drafting Gronkowski and Hernandez in the second and fourth round, respectively, and signing respected veteran Alge Crumpler — but the youth movement has the offense brimming with possibilities.
Hernandez is tied with Julian Edelman for the team lead in preseason receptions (seven), and he's also got 72 receiving yards and one touchdown. In the second quarter against the Falcons, Hernandez caught a touchdown pass off his back hip around a defender, which was notable for two reasons. It displayed his great hands, and it's a play that would have been nearly impossible to execute if he wasn’t on the same page as quarterback Tom Brady, who has spent a good chunk of time speaking one-on-one with Hernandez during a bunch of practices this summer.
"He just teaches me," Hernandez said, "little moves on routes, how to change stuff up, and it's helped me a lot so far.
"I just come out here every day and try to get open. He's such a great quarterback. If I'm open, he'll find me."
Hernandez isn’t going to be used like a traditional tight end. At 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds, he's undersized for the position, and it will be difficult for him to get off the ball if he's lined up in a three-point stance on the line of scrimmage.
It's likely Hernandez will work out of an offset position — diagonally behind another tight end — or standing up in the slot, which will maximize his chances to showcase his athleticism and, thus, his playmaking ability. Hernandez will create matchup problems because he's faster than most linebackers, more physical than most cornerbacks and has the receiving ability of a wideout.
Gronkowski will be a matchup nightmare for other reasons. At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, he's a wrecking ball of a physical specimen, and he'll overpower safeties and work through linebackers. Gronkowski already has excellent blocking skills, so he can be used in a variety of roles, but he's also a smart receiver.
So many times in practice, Gronkowski has been able to position himself off a linebacker to make a perfect catch, and he's done some really good work in the red zone, too. It's one thing to have his size, but it's another to be smart enough to use it appropriately.
Gronkowski had four catches for 38 yards and one touchdown — when he beat a linebacker on a seam route and hauled in a strategically high throw from Brian Hoyer — against the Falcons. And although Gronkowski didn’t notch any statistics in the preseason opener against the Saints, he played well in blocking formations.
"I like this offense a lot," Gronkowski said. "I like blocking. I like receiving. That’s what they've got me doing. It's a fun offense. I'm really enjoying it."
Even Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who is perhaps the greatest to ever play the position, was impressed with the Patriots' rookies last week when the two teams held joint practices in Flowery Branch, Ga.
"I have watched both tight ends, and they are rookies so they are still learning this game," Gonzalez said. "I do see a future for them. Hernandez, with the receiving part of it, has got that down. He can keep improving on that. If you are going to be a tight end, and you want to be called a tight end, then you better learn how to block. That is what the position is. With [Gronkowski], I think he has a pretty good receiving game, and he has got the blocking pretty good."
Gronkowski and Hernandez have also impressed with their work ethic. De facto offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien spent a number of drills during June's minicamp lashing into the rookies for their footwork, spacing and route running, but that hasn’t happened since the Patriots reported for training camp. It's a good sign that the rookies spent their five weeks away working out and studying.
"[I've been] listening to anyone who can give me advice," Gronkowski said. "I just want to know how to break out of my routes and when to stop, when to go, just basically working hard and listening to the coaches."
Brady has quickly developed a good on-field relationship with both rookies, who have the makings of becoming really good NFL players. If the past month, and their track records in college, are any indication, the Patriots are onto big things with their two new tight ends, and it looks like they'll reap immediate rewards.
"We're just both pushing each other," Gronkowski said, "both working hard and both trying to get a role on the team and help out the team."