Of all the positions on New England's roster, tight end is the one with the least question marks. Gronk is the best in the game, and with the addition of another legitimate TE1 in Martellus Bennett, the Patriots once again boast the best tight end duo in the league. They also brought in Clay Harbor, whose contract structure suggests he's in the team's long-term plans, with AJ Derby, Steven Scheu, and Bryce Williams rounding out the positional grouping.
With Gronk and Bennett the clear leaders here, how do you see the Patriots utilizing Harbor? And do any of these back end guys have a shot to make the final 53?
I think Harbor is in clear competition with James Develin for the fullback role, and I'll group Develin in with this positional group because fullbacks aren't running backs. Harbor is more athletic than Develin and is a bigger threat as a receiver, so I have to think offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is going to have a field day. Harbor can move all over the formation and defenses actually have to respect his potential in the open field, which is why I think he has the edge over Develin and could have an impact moving forward.
I think Develin will be battling A.J. Derby for a 4th tight end spot, and it should be a tight battle. Scheu looked more athletic than Williams in OTAs, but I liked Williams a lot based on his college tape, but I view these two as Zach Sudfeld type characters that disappear into the ether during roster cuts.
I'm most interested in the Gronk-Bennett duo. How do you think the Patriots manage their snaps and how many touchdowns will they combine to score?
I'm sure you remember, early in the 2015 season, the Patriots busted out a 4 TE package right around the goal line, a package they eventually had to scrap because of Scott Chandler's injuries and under-performance over the season. I can definitely see that package returning and all the great plays McDaniels drew up last year getting dusted off and inserted back into the playbook now that Bennett is around - I mean how do you defend a package with Gronk, Bennett, and Julian Edelman inside the 5?
I also see the Patriots bringing back the 2TE sets that they lost when the Aaron Hernandez situation went down; Bennett isn't quite the kind of player Herndo was, but he has the versatility and is a legitimate receiving threat. Gronk and Bennett are also among the best blocking tight ends in the league, which makes the run game/run-to-pass-to-run audibles that more more dangerous. I wouldn't be surprised if they end up combining for 20+ scores in 2016.
A big concern I have regarding Bennett, however: I have spoken to a fair number of Bears fans this offseason, and they all have the same thing to say: Bennett is a great talent, but the guy is nuts. Borderline certifiably insane. Folks may remember him referring to himself as "a black unicorn," and apparently he was very hard to get along with in Chicago.
Now obviously the Patriots have a pretty good track record of bringing "problem guys" in from other systems and making sure they fall into line...but you may remember there being talk about how Brandon Lloyd being weird and kind of hard to get along with off the field led to his (in the eyes of some) disappointing tenure in New England and eventual dismissal. Are you in any way concerned that Bears fans are so happy to be rid of a guy who is clearly a gamechanger? Or is the NE locker room just too strong, even without Brady?
Well, the Bears have shipped off the likes of Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte, and now Martellus Bennett, so I think there's something strange in the Chicago water. Bennett was noted for not studying the playbook of then-new offensive coordinator Adam Gase because he wanted a new contract (bold strategy), but he picked it up quickly when he reported to camp. He was asked to block more under Gase than he was in 2014, which led to a dip in his receiving numbers, and caused him to become frustrated.
But he seems to have changed his tune with the Patriots, saying that he's been doing things with the Patriots that he wasn't doing with the Bears, that he's excited to play alongside Rob Gronkowski, that he's ready to take his game to the next step. I think winning changes everything for players like Bennett and all the losing in Chicago really got to him. I think the Patriots will win, Bennett will say all the right things, and he'll try to leverage the 2016 season into a nice final paycheck in the offseason.