1. Other Tight Ends on the Roster
Playing without tight ends Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski is hardly novel in New England. Both have had injuries over the past three years and–as hard as it is for others to believe–the offense in New England still rivals, matches, and/or exceeds the high-powered offenses in Green Bay, New Orleans, and Denver even without these two. Of course, with the small amounts of information that comes out of Foxboro, MA regarding injuries, there is no real timetable about the return of Gronkowski. He could miss a month, two months of the regular season, or be back for September. No one really knows what to expect or predict at this point.
The Patriots have depth behind the two starters on the roster already, as they have four other tight ends who already had a mini-camp and OTAs as the five on the field. They are Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui, Daniel Fells, and rookie free agents Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford.
Tight end Jake Ballard is returning from a season on injured reserve. The Patriots stole legally acquired him as they are allowed to do per NFL waiver rules from the New Giants after the G-men tried to sneak him through waivers to put on injured reserve in the off-season after Ballard blew out his knee against the Patriots in the Giants Super Bowl victory. Ballard is a big target with more blocking prowess than Hernandez. Obviously, no one is going to match Hernandez’s athleticism on the field where he was basically a tight end and wide receiver depending on the matchup. But Ballard is a legitimate starting tight end in the NFL. He makes all the catches, blocks well, and should be able to work the middle of the field, which is all the Patriots need from him. Expect to see Ballard at the “Y” tight end, playing in place of Gronkowski until he returns from injury and spelling him afterwards. Also, at 6’6”, 275 lbs Ballard is a weapon in the red zone with or without Gronkowski.
Tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells were both on the roster last year in New England and filled in when Gronkowski and Hernandez missed time with injuries. Both are solid in-line blockers, and Hoomanawanui offers more of the flexibility of Hernandez (without the off-the-charts athleticism, of course). If the Patriots are to stay in a two tight end package, expect to see these two tight ends on the field as well, possibly together. Fells is a third tight end for blocking who plays in-line and could be a cap casualty with the addition of Ballard. Hoomanawanui is more of a role in the “joker” role that Hernandez filled, although he played both positions last year in the offense and lined-up in the backfield as an H-back and pure fullback role.
The two wild cards at tight end are the undrafted free agents, Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford. Sudfeld was the star of mini-camp and is giant 6’7” ponytailed red zone target. He is older (24, same age as Hoomanawanui) and had injuries in college. He looks like a Gronk role backup for the team and a possible hidden gem. Brandon Ford did not garner much attention at all, but has a better shot at making the roster than Sudfeld (and Daniel Fells potentially). Ford could be the swiss army knife in the tight end arsenal as he is the only true “joker” tight end on the roster. A converted wide receiver, he can flex off the line for match-up problems, line-up as H-back, and be a fullback receiving threat in goal line and short yardage situations. Expect these two rookies to get a good long look in training camp this summer.