Beyond the starters in last night’s preseason contest between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles, there were many subplots and players to watch. MusketFire.com’s Gary Wolff and Cyrus Geller already did a bang-up job on some key points from the game, but there was so much going on that there’s plenty of analysis to go around. One thing picked up while watching and rewatching the television game film was that the Patriots continued to stay with their multiple tight end sets as a part of the offense.
Patriots tight end Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui, Daniel Fells, and Zach Sudfeld made their mark blocking in the running and passing game during the 31 to 22 win over the Eagles. The two tight end set was in use, but looking more like a seven man offensive line as they knocked the Eagles back and looked powerful in the running game. Zach Sudfeld had one of the best plays in the game as a receiver at tight end on a catch-and-run for 22 yards on a Ryan Mallett dump off that he showed good hands, running ability, and power.
Daniel Fells led the tight ends with three receptions for 27 yards. Fells has a hefty salary for a non-starter for the Patriots, and was primarily out with the backups last night, getting only three snaps with the starters. Fells caught all three passes from quarterback Ryan Mallett on a drive at the end of the first quarter that ended in a Stephen Gostkowski missed field goal. One interesting tidbit on Fells and fellow tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, ProFootballFocus.com’s advanced statistics rated both tight ends highly last season and helped show how they contributed to team even when not catching passes. These tidbits are courtesy of Mike Clay at PFF:
Fells also played extremely well last year. He was our No. 12 overall rated tight end despite a negative grade as a receiver. He ranked as the seventh-best pass blocker and sixth-best run blocker. New England called pass on 37 percent of Fells’ snaps, which is extremely low.
Hoomanawanui is a pretty good player. He struggled with injuries in St. Louis, but he was a highly regarded blocker coming out of Illinois in 2010. In fact, according to our analysts, Hoomanawanui ranked out as the fifth-best pass-blocking tight end in football last season (not to mention 19th overall). The Patriots called pass on only 42 percent of his 348 snaps and Hoomanawanui protected Brady 45 percent of the time when on the field for a pass play.
These two tend to get overlooked with the two star tight ends the Patriots had in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski the past three seasons. With Hernandez playing for the Bristol County House of Corrections Intramural Squad this season and Gronkowski working his way back to the field after multiple strategies, this tight end group is not going to be ignored as part of the offense. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels made it clear he did not simply rip all the two tight end sets out of the playbook this offseason following Hernandez’s arrest and subsequent release.
Tight end Jake Ballard started alongside rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld and each got a majority of the snaps with the starters, with Ballard on the field for twelve snaps and Sudfeld for nine. Tight end Daniel Fells and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui were only out with the starters for three snaps and six starts respectively (per ESPNBoston). Sudfeld and Ballard both have good pass catching skills and are known more for their receiving than blocking skills.
Ballard and Sudfeld impressed on the opening drives with their in-line run blocking and pass blocking. If those two can contribute in the blocking game like Fells and Hoomanawanui did last season, the Patriots will have multiple combinations of tight ends to roll out on offense and give different looks and dictate matchups against opposing defenses. If last night is any indication, the two tight end set is alive and well in the New England offense, and it is not going away anytime soon, with or without Rob Gronkowski in the lineup.