The Patriots acquisition of tight end Martellus Bennett might have been one of the most underrated moves over the offseason and it’s not that difficult to understand why. Everyone respects Bennett as being one of the best tight ends in the league, but it’s a position that’s considered far less sexy than its offensive skill player counterparts.
It seems as if the Cowboys have received more fanfare for the drafting of running back Ezekiel Elliott than the Patriots have from trading for Bennett- and I’m going to show how the addition of Bennett changes the game.
The 2011 Patriots offense will be the obvious model because the Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez duo formed the greatest tandem in the history of the NFL. The pairing of Bennett with Gronkowski gives the Patriots the only other tight end duo with 900+ receiving yard seasons ever.
So out of the gate, we’re witnessing a tight end group of historic levels. ESPN’s Field Yates was ranking the top 10 offensive position groups in the NFL and ranked the Patriots tight ends the third best grouping in the league, behind the Cowboys offensive line and the Cardinals wide receivers.
“The presence of Rob Gronkowski alone makes the Patriots' tight end group dominant,” Yates writes, “as there is perhaps no greater gap between a player and the rest of his position group than the one between Gronk and other tight ends. And when the team acquired Martellus Bennett via trade this offseason, it tipped the scale even further.”
This line of reasoning is difficult to argue against. Gronkowski was unanimously selected to the 2014 All Pro team and collected 48 of the possible 50 votes in 2015.
He is as far ahead of his peers as almost any other player in the league. The Ringer argues that Gronkowski’s receiving ability over the league average tight end is only rivaled by Kellen Winslow in the 1980s, and there’s no question that Gronkowski is a far more dominant blocker.
“[Gronkowski] is the only one that can do what he does,” Kevin Clark says while ranking the league’s tight ends on The Ringer’s NFL podcast.
And now the Patriots have added Bennett to the mix to further confound defenses.
“A defense that plays its base personnel will struggle to hold up in man coverage,” Yates notes, “while sub packages will face a challenge defending the run.”
We’ve covered how the Patriots utilized Hernandez back in 2011, and how the Patriots loved to stack Gronkowski and Hernandez to generate mismatches in coverage. We’ve also noted how the addition of Bennett, who is a quality blocker in his own right, adds an entirely new dimension to the offense.
Last season, the Patriots effectively telegraphed their play call whenever Michael Williams or Scott Chandler complemented Gronkowski on the field. Williams was there to block for the run, Chandler was expected to run a passing route.
We can break down the data even further. The Patriots ran roughly 50% of their snaps with a single tight end, and the remaining 50% with two or more tight ends- and I’m only looking at the likes of Williams, Chandler, Asante Cleveland, and others. I’m not interested in when the Patriots used an additional lineman to help block.
The Patriots passed the ball 75.1% of the time with a single tight end on the field, versus just 54.7% of the time with two or more tight ends.
Compare this to 2011, where the Patriots ran 74.0% of their snaps with two or more tight ends. When the Patriots used a single tight end, they passed the ball 59.6% of the time. When they used two or more tight ends, they passed 59.1% of the time.
That’s a striking difference. Teams could expect the Patriots to pass the ball with a single tight end in 2015, but the personnel didn’t tip the playcall in 2011. The addition of Bennett should help disguise, or even dictate, how the Patriots audible at the line.
For those interested in snap counts, the Patriots used both Gronkowski and Hernandez on the field at the same time on 72.2% of snaps in 2011. Gronkowski was an ironman that year, playing a whopping 94.8%, and it shows that there’s serious potential for Bennett to see playing time.
The Patriots have a relatively simple offensive snap breakdown. A running back will be on the field 100% of the time, while healthy versions of Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman should be expected to play 100% of the snaps. This leaves two spots on the field for the likes of Bennett and wide receivers Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan to share.
In a healthy world, the trio of Bennett, Amendola, and Hogan would likely see 67% of the snaps with the remaining two skill position slots on offense, but we also know that there are margins of error for injuries, blow outs, and goal line packages. A rookie like Malcolm Mitchell or a fullback like Clay Harbor could also command a handful of snaps.
Bennett is going to contribute in a major way, and not just as the Robin to Gronkowski’s Batman. Think of him more of being the Batman to Gronkowski’s Superman. It’s going to be a partnership for the ages and I can’t wait to see them in action.