Patriots Training Camp Preview: Tight End

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 27: (L-R) Aaron Hernandez #81 and Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots participate in drills as they warm up against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on November 27, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Happy Training Camp week, everyone! Over the next few days leading into and throughout training camp, I'll be highlighting and previewing a particular position each day. After looking at the wide receiver position earlier, we turn our focus to the tight ends.

The Dynamic Duo, Shake and Quake or the Boston TE Party. Whatever you are calling them nowadays, New England Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez stole the show in 2011--specifically, Gronkowski.

In just his second year in the NFL, Gronk propelled himself to being (arguably) the best tight in the league, as he set several different records at his position. In 2011, he caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 total touchdowns--numbers we never seen a Patriots tight end have. His stellar performance helped get his team back to the Super Bowl, and earned him a Pro Bowl and All-Pro nod last season. He even became a celebrity off the field, for his notorious 'Summer of Gronk' doings.

While Gronk is, in my mind, the best tight end in the league; what makes the Patriots so dominant at the position is the presence of another star tight end in Aaron Hernandez. While he isn't quite as overwhelmingly powerful or strong as Gronkowski, Hernandez brings many other things to the table that his partner in crime can't. His wide receiver like frame and style adds many other areas of concerns for opposing defenses. These two are in no way the same player, but their styles compliment one another.

With the 2012 season upon us, both will be looking to repeat and build upon their strong 11' campaigns. In order to provide insurance behind them, head coach Bill Belichick went to work to acquire tight end depth--something they didn't have last season.

He was able to sign one of the best tight ends on the market in Daniel Fells, flat out steal Jake Ballard via a waiver claim off the rival Giants' roster, and recently added a nine-year veteran in Visanthe Shiancoe. Because of injuries, the team recently converted defensive end Alex Silvestro into an emergency tight end. All and all, not a bad group to add to an already dominant position. They also added UDFA Tyler Urban out of West Virginia.

While Ballard is likely to be placed on IR following offseason ACL surgery, the Patriots still have a few choices to make here. In a league where you don't know when injuries may come and bite you, it's always important to have added depth. Let's take a look at where each tight end stands currently:

Projected Starters/Locks: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Daniel Fells, Jake Ballard

After receiving a contract extension this offseason that will pay him a lot of money, it seems fair to say that Rob Gronkowski will be a Patriot for many years to come. As for Hernandez, I believe a contract extension is on the horizon. With all of the Wes Welker contract drama, I feel like the Patriots will look to lock up the younger and similarly skilled Hernandez pretty soon.

I put Fells here, simply because of the contract he was given. He's not a great receiving tight end, he's not a great blocking one. But he's solid at doing both. My only concern with him is that he's been battling an injury that has kept him out for the majority of team's offseason workouts. If the injury worsens, the Patriots could place him on IR, and then use their special exception on him when and if his injury gets better. But that's worse case.

Ballard, meanwhile will likely go on injured reserve. Because he has less than four years of experience, the Patriots will have to wait until rosters are shrunk from 90 to 80. They are smart, and won't make the same careless mistake that the Giants did when they lost him. He'll be a future asset they can use down the road.

Most To Prove/On The Bubble: Visanthe Shiancoe

I'm a little bit torn on Shiancoe here. For one, he seems to be a placeholder/insurance policy if Fells continues to be out. He's a solid enough player to fill that third tight end role, but I believe that if healthy, it's Daniel Fells' to lose.

But I seem to waiver, because the Patriots reportedly gave him $1.2 million on a one-year contract. Not exactly the easiest contract to cut, but it's still doable. But with Bill Belichick, you just don't know. He may be looking to go four-deep at the position this year.

Most To Learn/Possible Cut/Practice Squad Member: Alex Silvestro, Tyler Urban

Taking that he just recently converted to the position, it seems safe to say that Silvestro has a lot to learn about it. With a guy like Shiancoe in his way, it seems highly unlikely that he makes the roster as a tight end.

I look for Silvestro to be placed on the team's practice squad, and be put on notice if injuries happen. He's a defensive end by trade, but he's become a versatile option.

Although his primary position is tight end, I don't see Urban's chances of making it any better than Silvestro's. As a rookie, he's got a long way to go. Look for a practice squad appointment tops for him.

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