For different reasons, they haven't been able to be on the field.
We saw how the Patriots and their offense seem to falter without Gronk on the field, yet we also understand the unique element that Hernandez brought to the squad. The Patriots are best with both, yet the value of Gronk is nonpareil.
So when we approach this draft, we need to get into our coaching and general manager caps to try and figure out which tight ends make the most sense when evaluating the Patriots needs.
First, we have to define the terms. Tight end is as broad a category as "wide receiver", and there are clear distinctions for the latter term. As Patriots fans, we've become extremely familiar with the concept of a slot receiver and comparing their value to that of a standard outside receiver just doesn't do the position justice. In addition to the slot role, there's also the X (who you might consider a traditional #1 receiver) and the Z (a more moveable chess piece).
Similar for the tight end spot. There's the "Y" tight end, which is the name for the in-line tight end, and then there's the "F" tight end, who is comparable to the Z; the F is moved around the offense from slot receiver, to fullback, to even wide receiver.
The Case for Y
Gronkowski is the most important non-Tom Brady player on the offense and he can't stay healthy. It's clear that he's a health risk and adding another elite talent who can perform a similar role is imperative for offensive consistency.
A second Y doesn't just add depth, though. It allows the Patriots to provide greater mismatches on offense as either player could stay in to block and either player can break out into a route.
The Case for F
The Patriots have slot receivers, but they're too easily knocked off course. While Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Josh Boyce, and Brandon LaFell can all play inside and out, there isn't a true chess piece in the Hernandez mold.
James Develin isn't cutting it as the fullback and offensive mismatch. The addition of a true F would add an element to the offense that is possibly the only role currently missing from the roster.
The Y role is already filled by Gronk and with the extension to Michael Hoomanawanui, will the Patriots really want to invest so many resources into this same position? Getting an elite F is more important.
So what do you think? Cast your vote on what you believe is a more important position to fill.