The New England Patriots offense revolutionized the NFL when in 2010 they unleashed the duel tight end offense with rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez bringing two distinct but effective styles together on the field. The duo immediately created headaches for opposing defensive coordinators as both had a plethora of skills to be put to use by the creative offensive brain trust in New England. Unfortunately, off-field issues with Aaron Hernandez led to his arrest and release while injury issues have slowed Rob Gronkowski the past few seasons.
Building upon the success of veteran tight ends such as future Hall of Famers Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, NFL teams have become more aggressive in finding that distinct match-up problem that an elite tight end presents. Unlike Witten, Gonzalez and Gates, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski brings the stout size and blocking ability of a classic in-line tight end with the speed, hands, and vertical threat of a Gonzalez and Gates. With the athletic Hernandez lining up in the joker (off-the-line) tight end position, opposing defenses had their hands full from 2010 to 2012 when playing New England.
Head coach and de facto general manager Bill Belichick was at the forefront of the two-tight end look as early in his tenure in New England he invested multiple first round draft picks on the position. In 2002 he drafted tight end Daniel Graham in the first round (#21 overall) of the NFL Draft and then in 2004 grabbed tight end Ben Watson with the last pick (#32 overall) of the first round. However, neither tight end lived up to their billing as a dual-threat receiving and blocking in their time in New England.
Despite missing half of the 2013 season tight end Rob Gronkowski still had a major impact to the Patriots offense. With his elite pass receiving skills and strong blocking when not out in pass patterns, he out produced a number of his counterparts at the position in 2013 in half the playing time. FootballOutsiders.com ranked Gronkowski as 7th in the NFL in 2013 with their DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average) while ProFootballFocus.com had Gronkowski as second overall in their tight end ratings despite missing half the season. With Gronkowski in the offense compared to without him, quarterback Tom Brady’s passer rating was almost 15 points higher: 95.7 with Gronkowski in 2013, 80.9 without him (per Pro-Football-Reference.com).
The key for New England is finding that second tight end to pair with Rob Gronkowski and provide that match-up problem. With the surprise loss of Aaron Hernandez the Patriots were stuck with blocking tight ends in reserve such as Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan as promising undrafted free agent Zach Sudfeld flamed out early in the season. Without Gronkowski due to injury and with Hernandez released, the two-tight end offense appeared to be gone.
For the New England Patriots offense to perform at its peak efficiency there is a desperate need for another pass receiving tight end to complement Gronkowski. The second tight end does not have to be elite, but he needs to earn the trust of quarterback Tom Brady in training camp. Aaron Hernandez was never a strong blocker in passing or rushing and the blocking role is a good fit for a backup but not a starter.
The NFL Draft has an exciting tight end in Eric Ebron of North Carolina expected to be at the top of the tight end draft board. Think of a receiving threat like Aaron Hernandez or Denver’s Julius Thomas as a comparison. If he does not fall to the Patriots at #29 overall in the NFL Draft the Patriots may target Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro. A bigger target, Amaro would have another big target with receiving skills to pair with Gronkowski. The only other potential game-changer at tight end could be Troy Niklas of Notre Dame who only had one big season as he was initially at linebacker and then blocked behind the talented Tyler Eifert.
Potential free agents at tight end (there is too much time for teams to re-sign their own free agents still) include Baltimore’s Dennis Pitta, Buffalo’s Scott Chandler, Miami’s Dustin Keller, the Giants Brandon Myers, Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley, and the Lions’ Brandon Pettigrew. Pitta’s teammates Ed Dickson and former Colts star Dallas Clark, the Jets Jeff Cumberland, Arizona’s Jeff King, and the Texans’ Garrett Graham round out the top free agents potentially available. One name not on that list is the Saints’ Jimmy Graham as it is almost unimaginable he would be allowed to leave New Orleans.
The Patriots have a definite need at tight end to resolve before the 2014 season kicks-off. There are options available in free agency and the draft. A smart move would be to build depth and injury protection by drafting a top young tight end early and adding a veteran tight end in free agency to give the Patriots the depth they need at such a vital position. As the 2013 season showed, the team needs to give quarterback Tom Brady another option at tight end who can contribute to the offense and get it back to the dominant play that had become expected.