Patriots Shallow At Tight End As Rob Gronkowski Recovers From Injury (Mailbag)

Asa Watson, Will SmithIt isn’t time to hit the panic button yet, but there are reasons to be concerned about the New England Patriots’ offense in 2014 after a week of training camp.

The Patriots’ offense has struggled at times, which could be caused by the team’s much-improved defense, or it could be a lack of top-tier skill-position players. Quarterback Tom Brady, wide receiver Julian Edelman and the running backs look great, but a No. 2 wide receiver has yet to stand out, and the tight end group is struggling with Rob Gronkowski standing on the sideline during team drills.

Of course, Gronkowski will return (but for how long?) and wide receiver Aaron Dobson has yet to practice on his broken foot, so the offense still has plenty of time to improve, but the Patriots’ lack of consistent receivers is an area to watch as the team advances to the preseason.

Let’s dive into this week’s mailbag, starting with a question about the tight ends.

Thoughts on TEs outside of top 2 (Gronk/Hooman)?

There aren’t many reasons to be excited about the Patriots’ tight end group outside of Gronkowski, who appears to be moving better every day. Michael Hoomanawanui has missed the last two practices, Justin Jones is raw as a pass-catcher and blocker and Asa Watson has failed to stand out. D.J. Williams looks to have the best chance at making the roster as the team’s No. 3 tight end at this point.

It’s easy to judge Jones and Watson because I can compare both players to last year’s undrafted rookie tight end, Zach Sudfeld. Sudfeld looked amazing in organized team activities, minicamp and the start of training camp, and he fizzled out during preseason and the start of the regular season and was eventually released after just three games. Both Jones and Watson look far behind where Sudfeld was last year, as they should. Jones sat out the 2013 season because he was academically ineligible at East Carolina, and Asa Watson caught just three passes with NC State last season, whereas Sudfeld had injury questions, but he was extremely productive in his senior season with Nevada.

Jones or Watson could still improve as the summer wages on, but both players look better suited for a practice squad than a 53-man roster. Williams still has tons of potential, but the lack of production through his first three years in the league is concerning.

Fullback James Develin also gets snaps at tight end, but surely the Patriots would prefer to have a more athletic pass-catcher at the position.

Who do you think will start next to Wilfork at DT if Kelly isn’t ready to go right away?

It looks like Tommy Kelly should be ready to begin the season on the active roster, but if he’s not, Sealver Siliga could get the starting role in the “regular” defense. (Siliga could get the starting role even if Kelly is active and healthy.)

The Patriots showed interest in running a 3-4 regular defense last season, and now they appear to have the right personnel for for the alignment.

Here’s how it would look:

DE Vince Wilfork, NT Sealver Siliga, DE Chandler Jones

OLB Rob Ninkovich, ILB Jerod Mayo, ILB Jamie Collins, OLB Dont’a Hightower

Here’s how a 4-3 would look:

DE Rob Ninkovich, DT Vince Wilfork, DT Sealver Siliga, DE Chandler Jones

WLB Jamie Collins, MLB Jerod Mayo, SLB Dont’a Hightower

In nickel, Kelly and rookie Dominique Easley could rotate in for Wilfork and Siliga. The Patriots’ front seven looks much better and deeper than it was last season. All three starting linebackers, plus reserves James Anderson and Steve Beauharnais, are playing well in training camp.

Other than CB, which non-qb position do the pats have the most depth?

Offensive line, running back and linebacker are looking deep in training camp so far. Nate Solder, Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer should have starting jobs locked down, and Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, Marcus Cannon and Josh Kline are competing for the other two spots. Rookie offensive tackle Cameron Fleming has had some impressive moments during 1-on-1 drills.

At running back, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are solid, and rookie James White has been impressive this summer. Brandon Bolden is a proven reserve and undrafted rookie Roy Finch has displayed impressive quickness.

Create an Avengers team from current Pats. Wilfork or Mankins as Hulk? Brady obviously Captain America.

Tom Brady is Captain America, Darrelle Revis is Iron Man, Vince Wilfork is Hulk and Rob Gronkowski is Thor. Julian Edelman can be Hawkeye. Bill Belichick obviously is Nick Fury.

Do you expect a lot of 2back sets with White and Vereen on the field?

I think we could see some two-back sets with White and Vereen, but there isn’t as much deception in that alignment as there is in two-tight end sets. In a 21 alignment (two running backs, one tight end, two wide receivers), however, the opposing team would have to decide whether they’re defending in nickel (where the Patriots could have more success running the ball) or in their “regular” package, which could create mismatches when the running backs split out.

It could be an interesting wrinkle, but it likely wouldn’t revolutionize the game like the Patriots were able to do with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

On a scale of 0-0 (0 being impossible), what is the likelihood of Revis allowing more than 5 TDs this season?

I guess I have to go with zero. Revis has never allowed more that four touchdowns in a season, which he did in 2007 and 2013, according to Pro Football Focus.

Lesnar or Cena @ SummerSlam?

I’m going with Lesnar. It would be great to see a “Paul Heyman guy” with the belt again.

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