Beginning with the 2010 season, the New England Patriots started to revolutionize the tight end position. The team made 12 personnel its primary offensive package with young tight ends and rising stars Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez versatile focal points of the attack.
The duo was at its best in 2011: Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 169 catches, 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns – all NFL records for a tight end group. Unfortunately, the Patriots’ potent attack came to a sudden halt when Hernandez decided to pursue a career in crime rather than football.
Three seasons have passed since then and New England – despite winning a Super Bowl in 2014 – has been unable to come close to the success its tight end position enjoyed from 2010 until 2012. 2016 might be different, though, at least if you buy into what Bill Belichick had to say about the position and its depth.
During yesterday’s press conference, the Patriots head coach was asked specifically about rookie tight end Bryce Williams, whom Belichick called a good receiving option. During answering this question, he also mentioned tight ends A.J. Derby and Steven Scheu, both – like Williams – developmental depth options who have done “a good job.”
Belichick went on to praise the general depth and talent his team is currently having at the position. “It’s been probably as good of a tight end situation, overall from top to bottom, as we’ve ever had here,” Belichick pointed out yesterday. “The guys are all competitive; they can all do enough things to be competitive.”
Being competitive is one thing, but will they also be productive? That remains to be seen. Fact is: the Patriots have the best tight end in the NFL on their roster – Gronkowski – and have added another top-10 player this offseason when they traded for Martellus Bennett. The two are locks to make the team and will lead the position, while projecting to be the most prominently featured tight ends.
They may not be able to rival Gronkowski’s and Hernandez’ 2011 stats, though, given that the Patriots’ wide receiver position looks superior this season and the tight ends will not be asked to carry the load as much as they had to back in the day. However, having Gronkowski and Bennett will make it harder to defend New England’s offensive attack due to their well-roundedness in both the receiving and blocking game, their versatility and their athletic abilities.
Yet, when Belichick talks about how strong the tight end position is, he does not only talk about the top of the depth chart but also everything below – depth, the Patriots were lacking when they had Gronkowski and Hernandez as the main options (for example, the two were the only tight ends on the 53-man roster during the 2011 postseason).
Not only did New England add the aforementioned Williams and Scheu this offseason, the team also signed free agents Clay Harbor and Bear Pascoe to compete with A.J. Derby and fullback/tight end hybrid James Develin for playing time behind Gronkowski and Bennett. Of course, not all will make the team, as it seems unlikely that the Patriots keep more than four players at the position.
Still, having talented depth and promising developmental options make the position as good as any in the NFL. Something, even Bill Belichick seems to acknowledge.