Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski will be out for at least the next month or probably more, we know that. Aaron Hernandez, more of a "flex" tight end than a traditional in-line tight end, could return for tonight's Thanksgiving match-up against the Jets. However, even if he does return, there's a question of exactly how much he can contribute - as he could see a limited role.
The Patriots did a nice job this offseason building up depth at tight end beyond the big two. But who are these "expendables"? Lets take a look:
At age 32, Shiancoe is the oldest tight end on the Patriots roster. He spent the first four years of his career with the Giants after being drafted out of Morgan State in the third round of the 2003 NFL draft by the Giants. After the Giants, Shiancoe enjoyed his most successful years of his career playing for the Vikings, including a 56 catch, 11 touchdown season in 2009. With Rob Gronkowski out, Shiancoe is likely to assume many of his duties. He's an adequate in-line blocker, and should still be affective as a receiver. While he didn't record a catch in his first two games as a Patriot, he showed that he still has both the downfield athleticism and agility to be a factor in the passing game.
With Rob Gronkowski out, the 24 year old 6'4" 263 lbs Illinois product Michael Hoomanawanui instantly becomes the Patriots best blocking tight end. Although buried on a deep depth chart, Hoomanawanui has found ways to contribute to the team this year - whether it be as a lead blocking fullback or an in-line tight end on the goal line. He has just two catches on the year, but I could see him contributing a lot more in the wake of Gronkowski's injury. If Hernandez is forced to sit at some point and the Patriots still want to run two tight ends, I could see a scenario in which the Patriots run Shiancoe at the flex, and Hoomanawanui at the traditional "y" tight end spot.
In recent weeks, Fells has become the forgotten man on the Patriots' tight end depth chart. Even with Aaron Hernandez still out against the Colts, Fells was a healthy scratch behind Hoomanawanui and Shiancoe. Fells does have one amazing play on the year - a leaping, diving deep catch against the Seahawks in week six - but hasn't made a play since. He does a lot of things okay, but doesn't really stand out in any one area. So far, he hasn't lived up to that sizable three year deal the Patriots gave him in the offseason. But if Aaron Hernandez misses time in addition to Gronkowski, he could see some snaps, and could have a chance to rebound his season.