The most underrated player on the New England Patriots just might be tight end Daniel Fells, who is viewed by some fans as an incompetent player that doesn’t fit the team. I’ve never understood that, and it affirms my belief that blocking tight ends are the most overlooked players in the NFL today. Fells caught just four passes for 85 yards last season and is a mediocre receiver at his best, though he did catch 41 passes in 2010 for the St. Louis Rams. It is easy to forget that Fells was signed to a three-year deal worth $5.25 million last offseason, which is something that works for him (Patriots liked him and viewed him as a player important to their plans) and against him (pretty big deal, no?).
New England Patriots tight end Daniel Fells (86) runs after a catch at the practice field during Minicamp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
Daniel Fells is a player who is a huge beneficiary of the loss of Aaron Hernandez and the injury concerns regarding Rob Gronkowski, with the latter being especially important in raising Fells’s stock. The first game following Gronkowski’s first broken forearm injury was against the New York Jets, and Fells was absolutely incredible. He took Gronkowski’s snaps and ran with it, as he was an absolutely mauling run blocker.
In my opinion, Fells is clearly the second-best blocking TE on the team behind Gronkowski, and Gronk is the best blocking TE in the NFL. Last season, Fells had a +8.6 grade from the Pro Football Focus, and it is ridiculous how overlooked he is by the fan base. Fells is assured as a pass blocker at the position, and he is one of the best run blocking TEs in the NFL. Last season, he was PFF’s sixth-best run blocker at the tight end position and the 12th-highest graded TE overall. Yes, you read that right. Fells played in less snaps than Aaron Hernandez, and yet he was graded higher than Hernandez. He isn’t a better player than Hernandez or even close to as important as Hernandez was, but Fells was a success last season.
I’ve been trumping Fells’s cause on Twitter for a while now, and it amazes me how people believe he doesn’t fit the scheme. How in the heck does a blocking TE not fit anyone’s scheme? How is one of the best-graded blocking TEs in the NFL not a scheme fit for somebody? The Patriots scheme isn’t some exclusive club reserved for a select few people, and it seems like the only exclusion is made in the minds of fans who don’t understand how important good blocking is at the tight end position.
Now the Patriots purported problem at tight end is the loss of pass-catching productivity, but the loss of Hernandez will have to be made up by the wide receivers and Shane Vereen. A potential loss of Gronkowski? Now that’s on Jake Ballard to provide the pass-catching and Fells to block.
Michael Hoomanawanui is listed ahead of Fells on the Patriots depth chart, and that’s largely because of his flexibility and ability to play as an H-back. In my opinion, Fells was underused last season, as he played in slightly less snaps than Hooman (363 to 338). Hooman is a great blocking TE in his own right, but Fells is better due to his incredible run blocking. Fells, for my money, is the Patriots most unsung player, and I believe the Pats should give him a larger role as a blocker next season and use him as the No. 3 TE over Hooman.
Fells received $2 million in guaranteed money and a $1 million signing bonus as part of his deal last offseason, and it would make no sense for the Patriots to cut him and lose that money by releasing an effective player. Don’t sleep on Daniel Fells, because he is one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL. If you gave him a grade lower than a “C” for his work last season, then, well, shame on you. But you probably weren’t the only one. If you watched him play against the Jets, then I think you have a good idea of how dominant he is as a run blocker in this league. Blocking tight ends allow a team to beef up its rushing, and it can also lead to more flexibility for a team’s passing attack by adding a pass blocker who can also just as easily become a pass-catcher.
As for Fells as a receiver, he’s poor at that. There is no denying that Fells isn’t much more than a No. 3 TE in terms of pass-catching, even though his run blocking ability makes him a No. 2 TE in this league. His 2012 season with the Patriots was his best season as a blocker in performance, but I’m willing to bet that it was no fluke given his dominance as a run blocker. Fells is lucky, though, because he would have been cut if Hernandez was still on the team and Gronkowski had no injury concerns. But as it stands right now, Fells is the No. 4 TE at his lowest and the No. 2 TE at his highest (Gronk is on the PUP and he tops Hooman). Hooman will get more reps due to his ability to be an H-back, but Fells is somebody who should be praised for his work last season. He also has a solid-sized contract for a backup TE, so he will need to keep up the great blocking ability. I feel that Fells has earned his keep, and I hope he can have similar blocking success next season but in a larger role.