The New England Patriots are a team that helped define the modern tight end usage in the NFL today. The Patriots introduced the dynamic two-tight end offense in 2010 when they sprung their two rookies, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, on unsuspecting defensive coordinators. For three seasons, the Patriots rode two of the best values at the tight end position to a Super Bowl appearance and a trip to the AFC Championship Game. With Hernandez behind bars currently, the question becomes if Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end drafted by the New England Patriots in their history.
The Patriots first great tight end was 1975 first round draft pick Russ Francis. The three time Pro Bowl tight end ended his tenure in New England with a bizarre retirement after the 1980 NFL season following a contract dispute. After a year off, Francis came out of retirement to play for the San Francisco 49ers and there won a Super Bowl with them catching passes from Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana. He did come back for a year to finish his career with the Patriots.
Before Francis, Jim Whalen was the top tight end drafted by the Patriots as the third round draft pick put together five solid seasons in the 1960s. After Francis, the Patriots had second round draft pick Don Hasselbeck in 1977, ninth round draft pick in 1979 John Spagnola, 1981 eighth round draft pick Lin Dawson, and 1989 third round draft pick Marv Cook manning the tight end position.
The next great tight end for the New England Patriots was a fifth round draft pick in 1991 out of Livingstone college, Ben Coates. After a total of 30 receptions over his first two seasons, the unknown tight end formed a rapport with young quarterback Drew Bledsoe. After topping 50 receptions in 1993 Coates grabbed a then tight end record 96 passes and over 1,100 yards in 1994. That began a run of four Pro Bowls for the big burly tight end. When he retired after the 2000 season he was fourth in NFL history for receptions by a tight end.
The Patriots made a number of forays into the tight end position over the next few years. In 2000 they drafted Dave Stachelski in the fifth round a round ahead of a skinny quarterback from Michigan. In 2001 they picked Jabari Holloway in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. They finally invested high picks in 2002 and 2004. The team invested a first round pick on tight end Daniel Graham and then Ben Watson two years later. Although they received some production from the duo, they never turned into the dynamic duo the team envisioned.
Finally, the Patriots struck gold in the NFL Draft when they drafted tight end Rob Gronkowski at #42 overall in the second round and Aaron Hernandez #113 in the fourth round in 2010. Despite Hernandez flushing away a promising career, Gronkowski has arguably been the best tight end in football. His size and strength make him a road-grader of a blocker. As a receiver he has soft hands, runs precise routes, and has surprising quickness and separation for a player his size. However, the only thing that has slowed him has been injuries.
The Patriots have acquired some very good tight ends through the draft; however, current tight end Rob Gronkowski has the potential to be something special. As far as the best ever, at this point of his career it is difficult to call him the greatest of all-time as he is still young and has struggled with injuries recently. For the Patriots, it really comes down to either Russ Francis or Ben Coates as the best draft pick of all-time. Where Francis had a lot of his production in San Francisco, it allows former fifth round draft pick Big Ben Coates to sneak ahead and be declared the best draft pick at tight end in New England Patriots history.