The New England Patriots entered this off-season with gigantic question marks hovering over the tight end position. At the end of the season, the Patriots let one year veteran Chris Baker and long time draftee Ben Watson walk away from the team, leaving the roster with zero tight ends with NFL playing experience.
The past decade has seen the Patriots' usage of tight ends in the receiving game rise and diminish. The first Super Bowl year, 2001, yielded the lowest percentage of passing yards to tight ends. The 2006 season had the greatest percentage.
2001 - 5.1% of yards went to the TEs. (Jermaine Wiggins, Rod Rutledge)
2003 - 19.2% of yards went to the TEs. (Daniel Graham, Christian Fauria)
2004 - 15.6% of yards went to the TEs. (Daniel Graham, Christian Fauria, Ben Watson)
2005 - 17.8% of yards went to the TEs. (Ben Watson, Daniel Graham, Christian Fauria)
2006 - 29.4% of yards went to the TEs. (Ben Watson, Daniel Graham)
2007 - 9.7% of yards went to the TEs. (Ben Watson, Kyle Brady)
2008 - 8.2% of yards went to the TEs. (Ben Watson, David Thomas)
2009 - 12.4% of yards went to the TEs. (Ben Watson, Chris Baker)
Clearly the percentage of passes to tight ends correlates to the quality of wide receivers on the team. In 2006, the Patriots had Reche Caldwell and threw the greatest percentage to tight ends. In 2007, with Randy Moss and Wes Welker, the Patriots began to drift away from the tight ends. With Matt Cassel at the helm in 2008, the Patriots saw even fewer contributions by the tight ends in the receiving game since the Patriots designed plays for Cassel to throw the ball to Welker.
Review of last season and this off-season after the jump!
This past season saw another increase in passes to our tight ends- which is a good sign. Ben Watson was a force on the offensive side of the ball against Buffalo in week 1, but was clearly phased out of the offense as the year progressed. Chris Baker, on the other hand, never appeared. I think the Patriots wanted to get their tight ends more involved, but the tight ends never stepped up to the plate and showed that they deserved to be big players on the offense.
According to ProFootballFocus' numbers, both tight ends were single trick ponies- Baker would block and Watson would catch. There was no versatility amongst the tight ends, which meant that there was no camouflaging the tight end's role on the field. Baker on the field? Don't worry, he's just blocking. Watson? He'll be receiving (or if he tries to block, he'll be a liability).
The Patriots ended the season knowing they needed to upgrade the tight end position. They needed versatile players who demanded looks on offense. They let their current tight ends walk in order to start from scratch.
Move 1) The front office made a move to sign veteran and leader Alge Crumpler during the free agency period. Crumpler is a 4x Pro Bowler and 2x All Pro who does a fantastic job of setting up the run and teaching young players. He spent last season in Tennessee blocking for a running back named Chris Johnson who, from what I've heard, did pretty well. As in, led the league in running and set an NFL record for total yards from scrimmage. That's pretty good. He has been noted as a great locker room guy by former coaches, and should be a wealth of knowledge for our young players. Hopefully he has the competitive spark that our recent free agent acquisitions have been missing.
Move 2) Draft Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski was graded as the best overall tight end in the draft. He has the blocking capabilities where fellow draftee Jermaine Gresham is raw. He's able to catch with the best of them. He's the most versatile tight end we could have grabbed in the draft- and we moved up to take him. There are questions about his back, but if he's able to play well, then he should be able to have a large impact on all facets of our offense. Look for a 400 yard receiving season from the Gronk as he becomes a red zone threat and grabs some touchdowns.
Move 3) Draft Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez was regarded as one of the best receiving tight ends in the draft- and with his size (6'2, 250 lbs) and speed (4.64 40, 6.83 cone), Hernandez could become an extremely large, fast and strong receiver on our offense. He's a weaker in-line blocker than Gronkowski, but he's a fierce down field blocker; he should get down field enough times to help our receivers get extra yards. I don't think he'll see as many snaps as Gronkowski, but I expect Hernandez to have plays scripted specifically for his skill set. He definitely creates mismatches across the middle and down the field.
1) Will the Patriots try and involve their tight ends more into the receiving game?
2) How will the rookies adjust to the NFL and what will their contributions be?
3) Where will Alge Crumpler fit into our offense?
The Patriots seemed to address their tight end position for years to come, but there still remains questions as to how soon the young players will be able to contribute on offense.