FOXBORO, Mass. — Here’s a quick snapshot of the current state of the New England Patriots’ tight end group: When position coach Nick Caley wants one of his players to relay a story or teaching point from last season, he calls on Stephen Anderson.
Stephen Anderson has never played in a game for the Patriots.
No position on the Patriots’ roster underwent a more drastic makeover this offseason than tight end — a group that, for the first time in nearly a decade, no longer features superstar Rob Gronkowski.
Gronkowski’s retirement was just one of several changes. The Patriots also jettisoned their Nos. 2 (Dwayne Allen; cut) and 3 (Jacob Hollister; traded) tight ends from 2018, and their two most notable additions have been either suspended for the first month of the season (Ben Watson) or already released (Austin Seferian-Jenkins).
Excluding Watson, who is allowed to practice and play until the end of the preseason, four tight ends are left competing for roster spots as the Patriots’ spring schedule winds down: Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo, Andrew Beck and Anderson, who, after spending nearly all of last season on New England’s practice squad, is doing all he can to separate himself.
“I feel like throughout my career, since high school, when I’ve gotten an opportunity, I’ve done well,” the 26-year-old said after Wednesday’s minicamp practice. “So I’m excited to get on the field. I’m excited to put these practice days in and really work. And to be in this offense and be on this field, they’ve got to trust you and they’ve got to know that you’re going to do the right thing every single time.”
Anderson joined the Patriots after failing to make the team in Houston last summer. He’d enjoyed modest success as a pass-catcher for the Texans (36 catches for 435 yards and two touchdowns in 28 games over two seasons, including five starts) but appeared only on the scout team in his first season in New England. He earned a promotion to the active roster after Week 17 but was a healthy scratch for all three playoff games.
“When I got here after training camp, I felt like everything was going 100 miles an hour,” he said. “The offense was in, we were starting to scheme. I was getting used to a lot. I was getting used to (going) from humid Houston to cold New England. It was just a lot of things I had to adjust to.
“But I feel a lot more comfortable now. I’m getting in. I’m putting in the work and the reps. I’m studying. I’m lifting. I’m doing everything I possibly can do to be the best player I can.”
This offseason — his first in the Patriots’ program — Anderson placed an emphasis on adding lower-body strength to improve his blocking ability. He’s up to 240 pounds from his listed weight of 230 and hopes to present a more well-rounded skill set this season.
But Anderson, who even now lacks prototypical tight end size, knows his greatest assets are his quickness and receiving ability. To that end, he’s working on earning the trust of the coaching staff and of quarterback Tom Brady, who made his spring practice debut Tuesday after skipping voluntary organized team activities.
LaCosse and Watson have taken the most first-team reps during mandatory minicamp, but Anderson has seen considerable time with Brady during full-team drills. Brady completed two passes to Anderson in 11-on-11s on Tuesday, then targeted him three times in one five-snap span Wednesday, resulting in one completion and two pass breakups.
Anderson’s five total catches in 11s this week lead all Patriots tight ends.
“There’s a lot of opportunity,” Anderson said. “But they want to see people that they can trust. If you’re going to be on the field with Tom, then they’re going to have to trust you. So I’ve got to make sure my assignments are right. I’ve got to make sure I’m in the right spot when I need to be. I’ve got to make sure I’m playing a role on special teams. But yes, in general, there’s a lot of opportunity.”
Whichever tight ends wind up cracking the Patriots’ 53-man roster will shoulder the responsibility of replacing arguably the greatest player ever to play the position, which Anderson admitted is “a little” intimidating.
“If you look at it that way,” he said. “But I think confidence is an important factor in this game. If you’re not confident, then you’re not going to do well. And personally thinking about it, I know there’s big shoes to replace, but none of us need to be Rob. We just need to be the best versions of ourselves.”