It's a tight end's world and the Patriots are the collective prime ministers of it.
If you've paid attention to the Pats even for just a few minutes at any point over the past 12 years, you know that tight end is probably Bill Belichick's favorite position. The Pats draft and/or acquire multiple tight ends every year, even after they sign two of the best ones in the NFL to massive contract extensions.
Some people collect stamps or rare coins or baseball cards or other memorabilia. The Patriots collect tight ends. This is a major reason why this past season, despite having their two tight end monsters, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, 100 percent healthy at the same time for just one game, the Pats' offense, borderline unstoppable when those two are at peak condition, hardly missed a beat.
Regardless of the injuries, this offense is still heavily skewed toward the two previously mentioned players. Wes Welker had another tremendous season and the running game became as big a factor for the Pats as at any point since 2004. But the offense is still more predicated on Gronk and Hernandez as anyone else. Imagine those two fully healthy and getting every offensive rep together in either of the two huge games the Pats have lost to end the past two seasons.
Maybe Terrell Suggs is still just a no-class loser as opposed to a no-class winner.
But we digress. The bottom line is that even with Hernandez suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 2 that robbed him of six games and rendered him less than whole for the remainder of the season, and Gronk's freak arm injuries that cost him from Thanksgiving on as well as all but a couple of postseason snaps, both had excellent years that were capably backed up by their fill-ins.
For the third straight season, Gronk was setting the league on fire until Sergio Brown snapped his right arm on an extra point attempt late in the Week 11 win over the Colts. Gronk caught 55 passes for 790 yards and 11 more TDs in just 11 games. He now has 187 grabs for 2,663 yards and 38 (yes, 38!!!) scores in his three years as an NFL player. In that same game against Indy, he became the first player in NFL history to score 10 or more TDs in each of his first three seasons, an incredible record that fits nicely next to his marks for most receiving yards and scores in a single season by a tight end.
We all know that the Pats primarily look for Gronk down the seam and that he's their main target in the red zone. If they can get him one-on-one with a linebacker or a safety in either scenario, it's all over. But what makes Gronk truly special is his blocking ability. He's so big and strong that when he stays home to block, he may as well be an extra offensive tackle. Gronk's superior skill in this regard was a big reason the Pats' running game soared to the kind of heights it did in 2012.
It's tough to fathom how the AFC Championship game loss to Baltimore would have gone if Gronk hadn't re-injured his arm in the divisional round against Houston. The Pats missed a ton of opportunities in that game, particularly in the red zone, where a healthy Gronk could have helped immeasurably. What is for certain, however, is that Gronk is probably the best, most dynamic tight end in the league and his injuries did little to change that. He's probably one of the best dancers as well.
As for Hernandez, he's officially listed as a tight end and has his moments as a blocker. But he's a really a very big slot receiver, strong enough to handle oncoming safeties and linebackers and quick, speedy and explosive enough to not only outrun those types but some corners too. That it was his ankle that was injured in that Week 2 loss to Arizona was especially cruel given Hernandez's tremendous cutting, running and leaping ability and he never seemed quite right at any point later in the year after he came back, even months afterward.
There were flashes of his old self, a couple of times in the playoff win over the Texans in particular, where he was still able to plant, cut and completely fake out any defender in the general vicinity. But those moments were few and far between, perhaps as a result if his trying to return from the injury too soon, returning in Week 6 at Seattle and painfully laboring through that game and the one against the Jets the following week before being forced to shut it down again for another month.
Despite his health issues, Hernandez still managed a nice season, finishing with 51 catches for 483 yards and five scores while lining up everywhere from the slot to the backfield. Should Welker not return, the Pats will more than likely simply plug Herrnandez into his role as the primary slot receiver while integrating former Giants' up-and-comer Jake Ballard into a more traditional, second tight end role next to Gronk. Hernandez, thanks to his athleticism and unique ability, won't miss a beat.
Belichick's affinity for tight ends allowed the Pats quite a bit of depth at the position this past season and boy did that come in handy. Michael Hoomanawanui, Daniel Fells and Visanthe Shiancoe all were limited in their overall skill sets but each of them contributed at times throughout the course of the year. Shiancoe barely lasted a month and barely did anything after being kept throughout an injurt and a stint on the PUP list, while Fells, mostly brought in from Denver on a three-year deal with a $2 million guarantee, did most of his good work as a blocker. He managed four catches on the year but also found himself behind Hoomanawanui on the depth chart by mid-season and was deactivated for three games.
Hoomanawahoo, as CBS's Solomon Wilcots called him while broadcasting the Week 16 win at Jacksonville, was a nice surprise. For a limited player in both the passing and running games, he came up with a handful of plays over the course of the season in each that proved to be difference makers. Tom Brady caught him open five times at 21.8 yards per catch, none of them bigger than a 41-yarder during the amazing second half comeback against the 49ers in Week 15.
It was another terrific season for the Pats at their favorite position on offense. But as good as it was, with some luck in the health department, it could have been so much better.
Gronk signed a six-year, $53 million extension last June while Hernandez agreed to a five-year extension with a $12.5 million signing bonus and another $16 million guaranteed with a maximum value of $40 million just a couple of months later. Gronk's was the richest deal for a tight end in league history while Hernandez's doesn't kick in until his rookie contract ends after the upcoming season, meaning he could be a Patriot through 2018. In other words, it's clear that these two will be cornerstones of the Pats' offense not just this year but for years to come.
Then there's Ballard, who is signed for two more seasons before hitting unrestricted free agency after being stashed on IR in 2012. Ballard's base salary will amount to a relatively paltry $630,000 in 2013, a tremendous bargain for a young player who managed 38 catches for 604 yards and four TDs in a limited role for the Giants in 2011. As usual, the Pats will be stacked at this spot once again.
There's no certainty as to whether Fells or Hoomanawanui or both, will be back come Week 1 of the upcoming season. Given Belichick's propensity for loading the depth chart with tight ends though, it wouldn't be a surprise to not only see them both return but see him select yet another tight end in April's draft.