In the first three weeks of the season, Bill Belichick effectively used a four tight-end set, scoring twice from it in Week 1 This caught league-wide attention and led to plenty of speculation about how the Patriots would use it throughout the season.
Now, the Patriots no longer have four tight ends on their roster, having traded Michael Hoomanawanui to the Saints. However, this formation is not dead yet, as New England has several players whose skill set, though not tight ends, enables them to step in in these scenarios. Here are a few of them.
As everyone was reminded last January, Solder was a tight end in college before developing into a first-round pick at tackle. The Patriots also pride their offensive line on their versatility, rotating players throughout the game and using 6-OL formations. In a six-lineman formation on the goal line, Solder could be the eligible player, and having caught a touchdown pass in the playoffs, defenses would have to keep an eye on him since he could just as easily run a route as block.
In most 6-OL formations this season, Mason has been the extra man playing in the fullback position. Since Blount is the Patriots' big back for goal line formations, the Patriots could line up with all three tight ends, Mason, and Blount on the field, then motion Mason out, turning a 3-TE set into a 4-TE set.
For the first half of the year, Andrews is locked in as the starting center with Bryan Stork on IR-DFR. If Stork returns healthy, Andrews could see snaps in the role Mason is playing now, as Patriots coaches revealed both players saw time at fullback during camp. And if he sees such snaps on the goal line, he could end up in the same possible role.
A special teams standout who moonlights as a running back, Bolden's sole offensive snap against the Jaguars in Week 3 came on a goal line package. I don't recall if it was a formation the Patriots have used with the 4-TE grouping, and can't verify because I don't have All-22 or Game Rewind or anything like that, but it was a similar formation and he was not in the backfield. While Bolden at 5'11" and 220 pounds is obviously not a tight end, using him in these formations would create another matchup that defenses would have to guard against and allow him to see time on offense.
Believe it or not, Slater has played offensive snaps in recent seasons: in short-yardage or goal line situations as a blocker. (And on surprise punts.) If he's on the field with Gronk, Chandler, and Williams, the defense will be looking run. But it's a 4-TE set (albeit with the caveat that Slater is obviously not a tight end), and Brady has had frequent success throwing in those, so the defense will have to watch out for the aerial threat. Slater as the fourth player in these formations will be a unique way to play mind games with the opposition, something Bill Belichick has always been a master at.