If you aren't up to date on the Patriots' tight end situation, here's a quick summary:
After the 2009 season, the Patriots clean house and draft two tight ends: the injured Rob Gronkowski (back) in the second round and the off-the-field trouble maker Aaron Hernandez (marijuana) in the fourth round.
The two tight ends came into their own at the end of their rookie years in 2010 and took the league by storm in 2011, setting records left and right. The whole league copied the Patriots' strategy with tight ends in an attempt to harness their unbelievable value.
June 2012, Gronkowski signs a 6 year extension for $54million. August 2012, Hernandez signs a 5 year extension.
In the 2012 season, Hernandez was hurt at the beginning, but healed to help the team down the stretch. Gronkowski was hurt late in the season (arm), again in the playoffs (arm), dealt with an infection in the offseason (arm), and just had back surgery that is expected to hold him out until right when the season starts.
Oh, and Hernandez is now in trouble for being associated with a murder.
While there is still plenty of information that still has to come to light regarding Hernandez- he could be facing nothing, he could be facing forever- we can project that Gronkowski will likely be out through camp and probably won't be up to full speed until a Week 2 or 3.
With that in mind, let's look at who the Patriots have to pick up the slack until Gronkowski returns and, potentially, in place of Hernandez.
Jake Ballard, 6'6, 275 lbs: Ballard is one of Belichick's most shrewd decisions, when the Hood snatched Ballard off waivers last off-season. Ballard had fallen to an ACL injury in the Super Bowl (against the Patriots) and the Giants were trying to sneak him to their Injured Reserve. Belichick swooped in and stashed Ballard on the Physically Unable to Perform list for the whole year, letting Ballard recover for a full season and learn the playbook.
Ballard is a natural replacement for Gronkowski for the first couple of weeks as Jake is an above average starter in his own right. He's not a top tier player, but he can play enough like Buffalo's Scott Chandler to be a solid target in the red zone and to help move the chains. He can block and he can help move the chains. He's developed a basic rapport with Tom Brady during this off-season, so he looks like he can contribute at the very basic level. Reviews haven't been raving, but there's been enough positive to think the team can survive a couple weeks with Ballard.
Daniel Fells, 6'4, 270 lbs: The Patriots tried to sign Fells as a free agent from the St. Louis Rams, but Fells instead made his way to Denver. After a season there, the Patriots got what they wanted and brought Fells into the fold. Fells was supposed to step up in case of injury and provide an additional layer of strength to the tight end position. Well, I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I was definitely let down.
Fells posted 4 receptions for 85 yards. Fells is a solid #4 tight end, but in reality he's getting paid far too much for what little he produces. He chips in on special teams, but he hasn't showed reliable enough hands or quality enough blocking to warrant too much confidence. Fells was a likely cutting room floor candidate prior to this off-season debacle. If any of the Patriots show up on any sort of inactive list to start the season, look for Fells to be the first guy cut loose when they return. In the mean time, look for him to be the same player he was last season.
Michael Hoomanawanui, 6'4, 265 lbs: Hooman is one of Josh McDaniel's projects and he was a pleasant surprise last year. He passed Fells in impact and provided additional value as fullback. He signed a one year deal and could be considered a tweener between Gronk's and Hernandez's role. He lacks Hernandez's moves and he lacks Gronk's size, but he makes up for it in...heart?
In reality, Hooman is quite a replaceable player whose versatility is his main selling point. He won't be used to substitute either of the tight ends, but instead should keep focusing on his role as fullback and extra blocker.
Zach Sudfeld, 6'7, 255 lbs: The oft-injured tight end in college spent six seasons in classes to get through to the NFL. He missed the 2008 and 2011 NCAA seasons due to injury, but managed to put together a successful 2012 campaign, racking up 45 receptions for 598 yards and 8 touchdowns. He was undrafted, but the Patriots saw enough potential to bring him in to camp and he's surprised almost everyone.
Sudfeld has the size of Gronkowski, but I believe he'd be a natural in open space to replace Hernandez. He isn't as quick, but he has the ability in the open field and provides a big target. He's been the best tight end in camp (which means that he has the best hands), while his blocking remains to be seen. Sudfeld started the off-season as the dark horse to make the roster, but he's definitely going to make noise if he gets a chance to get on the field.
Tim Tebow, 6'3, 235: No.
Brandon Ford, 6'3, 240 lbs: Brandon Ford is the number one ford dealership in Flori- wait. Oh. Don't go by Google. Ford has flown greatly under the radar this off-season, which isn't a good sign for his chances since the competition for snaps hasn't even started. Ford could push for practice squad time, but he looks to challenge Hooman for the over-sized fullback role and he doesn't possess the speed or finesse to be a shaker in the open field.
Ford could steal the spotlight when it comes to blocking events in camp- but extra blockers are a dime-a-dozen. The Patriots need offensive weapons and if Ford can't catch the ball, he'll likely catch the next flight out of Boston.
Throughout all the news with the tight ends, don't forget that Gronkowski's injury shouldn't have a long term impact on the season. Gronkowski should be fully healed before the season starts- the timeline that pushes him into the season is based upon his "regaining football activity", which could mean that Gronk is ready to play week 1.
In reality, the big question mark is who could possibly replace Hernandez's role in the Patriots offense. From a tight end perspective, the Patriots have a lot of players who mirror Gronk's stature, but none who back-up Hernandez. In my view, Sudfeld stands the best chance of taking over some of the slack should Hernandez miss any time. Also keep in mind that Julian Edelman took over the vast majority of Hernandez's snaps and plays after Hernandez was hurt in Week 2 of last year.
Look for a likely combination of Ballard, Sudfeld, and Edelman to replace whatever is lost by the Patriots two cornerstone tight ends.