The New England Patriots will look to defend their Super Bowl title in 2017. But first, they have some questions to answer.

Before the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off next week, marking the unofficial start of the NFL offseason, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2016, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town. 

Next up: the tight ends. 

UNDER CONTRACT
Rob Gronkowski
Rob Housler

IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
Martellus Bennett
Matt Lengel
Greg Scruggs
Michael Williams

STANDOUT PERFORMER
He didn’t replicate Gronkowski’s elite-level production, but Bennett was a tremendously important player in his first season in New England. He battled through a laundry list of injuries to play in all 19 games for the Patriots, putting up strong receiving numbers (55 catches, 701 yards, team-high seven touchdowns) and excelling as a blocker.

Bennett’s effectiveness tailed off late in the season as his various bumps and bruises began to take their toll, but thanks to him, the impact Gronkowski’s season-ending back injury had on the Patriots’ offense was minor. Not since the days of Aaron Hernandez has New England had a more desirable second option at tight end.

Bennett’s contract is up, however, and he’ll be the top free-agent tight end available if he doesn’t re-sign.

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT
Gronkowski was a tornado of destruction when he was on the field this season, averaging an eye-popping 21.6 yards per catch and surpassing 100 receiving yards in three of the first four games following quarterback Tom Brady’s return from suspension. The key phrase there, however, is “when he was on the field.”

This was yet another injury-filled campaign for Gronkowski, with a preseason hamstring tweak and midseason back surgery limiting the four-time All-Pro to just eight games. And he was a full participant in just five of those games, serving as little more than a decoy in two and leaving another after just seven snaps.

Gronkowski obviously is a generational talent and could go down as the greatest tight end in NFL history if he can stay healthy. But can he? More on that later.

BY THE NUMBERS
69: The number of touchdowns Gronkowski has scored in his Patriots career, breaking Stanley Morgan’s franchise record of 68. Naturally, Gronk thinks this is hilarious.

Two: The number of receptions this season by Patriots tight ends other than Gronkowski and Bennett. Lengel had one in Week 16 and another in Week 17. Scruggs spent almost the entire season on injured reserve, and A.J. Derby (trade) and Clay Harbor (released) both left town before they could catch their first pass.

12: The number of times Bennett said “bacon” during one December media session.

BIGGEST OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. Will Bennett be back? The answer to that question will shape how the Patriots approach the tight end position this offseason. If he re-signs, they can keep their dynamic duo intact and fill out the depth chart with a Lengel-type player. If Bennett heads elsewhere — which, according to a report by NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport, is the more likely outcome — they’ll need to bring in someone they believe could slot in as a No. 1 tight end in the event Gronkowski suffers another injury. Which brings us to…

2. Is Gronkowski’s health a serious concern? All signs point to Gronk being ready to go for Week 1. And when he’s healthy, he’s arguably the most dangerous offensive player in the league. But every body eventually reaches its breaking point, even one as freakishly athletic as Gronkowski’s. The idea of trading such a productive and highly regarded player sounds crazy, but if the Patriots reach the point where they believe Gronk’s injury risk outweighs his on-field potential, it’s an option they must at least consider.

3. Will the Patriots draft a tight end? If Bennett leaves town, it would not be at all surprising to see the Pats use a high draft pick on his potential replacement. Alabama’s O.J. Howard and Miami’s David Njoku could be options at No. 32, though many experts have both coming off the board earlier in the first round.

Patriots offseason preview: Quarterbacks | Running backs | Wide receivers | Offensive line | Defensive line/ends | Linebackers | Secondary

Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images