Under Contract (2015 Week 1 Age): Rob Gronkowski (26), Michael Hoomanawanui (27), Tim Wright (25)
2014 Review: Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in the game. There's no debate. As soon as he felt like his knee had fully recovered from an 2013 ACL tear, a moment that occurred late in the 2nd half against the Chiefs in Week 4, Gronk was unstoppable as a receiver. He won Comeback Player of the Year and could arguably have been the Patriots MVP during the regular season. He changed every game he played and he dictated how opposing defenses approached the Patriots offensive attack, particularly in the red zone.
Gronk still isn't 100%. He looked a little slow in the Super Bowl and his blocking hasn't been to his usual consistently dominant form. But most ACL injuries take two full years before the player regains full ability (even though they can return within one year), so look for him to continue to improve.
Hoomanawanui finished the year with a reception in each playoff game, which should come as a surprise. He has never really been involved in the passing game and his blocking definitely left a lot to be desired this year; the continued growth of James Develin reduced the versatility that Hooman offers. Still, he came through in the clutch every time his number was called, highlighted by his receptions when the Patriots operated with a shorthanded offensive line.
Wright is such an interesting case. Every time he was targeted, something great happened. He had three games in the regular season with 5+ targets and collected 17 of 18, for 182 yards and 4 touchdowns in those games. He did not see a single registered target in the postseason. The emergence of Danny Amendola in the slot down the final stretch really removed Wright from the equation, but he offers a skill set that is a mismatch for a lot of teams.
The tight ends did as well as could have been asked in the receiving game, although all three could have done a better job as blockers.
2015 Projection: Gronkowski is going to be even better if he can get the cast off of his arm, and as his knee continues to gain strength. A healthy Gronkowski means that the Patriots don't have an excuse for a slow offensive start, like they've had the past few seasons. Improved knee strength means he'll be a better blocker, he'll be better able to plant, and he'll take his game to new heights.
As for Hooman and Wright, neither is guaranteed a spot on next season's team. Josh McDaniels loves Hooman, though, so it's very possible that the tight end stays on the roster and follows McDaniels to his new head coaching job in 2016. Wright also provides such a match-up value that Bill Belichick will likely keep him around just for his performance in the red zone.
It wouldn't be hard to upgrade the position in the off-season, as this is a huge year for tight ends. Players like Julius Thomas, Jordan Cameron, Charles Clay, Owen Daniels, Jermaine Gresham, Larry Donnell, and more that offer unproven potential (Rob Housler) are all on the market.
Ultimately, it would make sense for the coaches to stick with the players they know and bring in a player or two to challenge the back-end of the roster.