The New England Patriots have gotten plenty of receiving production from the tight end position this fall.
That is, if you throw the depth chart’s collective numbers into a hat and leave out the fact only one name has accounted for virtually all of it.
Rob Gronkowski has already done more thus far into 2017 than he did in a limited eight games before falling to injured reserve in December of 2016. He’s tied for 12th in the NFL in receptions, stands 10th in receiving yards, and is one of six players ranked third overall in receiving touchdowns.
Gronkowski has also missed a game with a bruised thigh.
But no other tight end in the Patriots’ fold saw a pass sent their way in his absence last week versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And to date, former Indianapolis Colt Dwayne Allen and undrafted rookie Jacob Hollister have only seen 10 of Tom Brady’s passes meet them on their routes.
Two netted completions and for 24 yards. Hollister was the recipient of both.
Allen, meanwhile, is still waiting to get into the stat sheet after coming over in exchange for a fourth-round draft choice in March. The perceived replacement for Martellus Bennett played a season-low six snaps Sunday versus the New York Jets, as the offense operated more out of “21” personnel with fullback James Develin, and as Gronkowski notched two spikes.
A blocker he has been.
“The role that I am in right now, I don’t get as many passing opportunities, but that’s part of the game,” Allen told reporters in New England’s locker room last Tuesday, via Patriots.com. “You own up to your role, you embrace it and you continue to get better.”
The 6-foot-3, 265-pound Allen may not be the 6-foot-6, 275-pound Bennett, but in the long run he may be just fine. And Hollister may go on to contribute as a go-and-get-it slot option in two-tight end sets as well. Yet it’s still unlikely the Patriots foresaw Gronkowski taking on 80 percent of the group’s targets, 92 percent of the receptions, 94 percent of the receiving yards, and 100 percent of the receiving touchdowns when the roster was cut to 53 on Sept. 2.
FIRST SIX GAMES OF 2017
- Rob Gronkowski: 257 snaps, 41 targets, 26 catches, 401 yards, four touchdowns
- Dwayne Allen: 149 snaps, six targets, zero catches
- Jacob Hollister: 34 snaps, four targets, two catches, 24 yards
Catching the football isn’t everything. But it is expected, even if it is a challenging position to master for several reasons other than earning the quarterback’s trust.
“Probably other than the quarterback, the tight end position in our offense is the hardest to play,” head coach Bill Belichick detailed back in his Sept. 23, 2015 press conference, “because you have all the protections, you have all the running game and you have routes from the sideline, to the middle of the field, to occasionally even in the backfield. So, there are really no plays off mentally for that position.”
Two years later, those sentiments have held up well.
Whether it’s due to the varying responsibilities on the line, behind it or split wide of it; whether it’s pass-protecting or run-blocking – it’s still Gronkowski and then the supporting cast. He’s the one with little to no plays off. And for good reason: He’s pretty good at everything.
Might as well give the four-time All-Pro and fifth-fastest to 70 touchdown catches the rock while you’re at it. And if he’s covered, might as well try your luck with wideouts Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola, or running backs James White and Dion Lewis.
That’s the nucleus of New England’s 2017 passing game.
It was a different case in the early part of 2016.
Gronkowski missed the first two contests of the season due to a lingering hamstring injury and reeled in one pass over the Patriots’ next two. But there was Bennett – acquired that March for another fourth-rounder – who picked up the slack at tight end when No. 87 was far from a full-go. It was Bennett who provided contrast to Julian Edelman’s quick-breaking patterns underneath.
He was that big body rolling down the seams and slipping out for screens.
FIRST SIX GAMES OF 2016
- Rob Gronkowski: 175 snaps, 19 targets, 13 catches, 282 yards, one touchdown
- Martellus Bennett: 345 snaps, 33 targets, 26 catches, 362 yards, four touchdowns
- AJ Derby: 35 snaps, zero targets
- Clay Harbor: 25 snaps, zero targets
Bennett owned the rights to 63 percent of the position’s targets from the opener through the sixth contest. The ex-Dallas Cowboy, New York Giant and Chicago Bear also owned the rights to 66 percent of the catches, 56 percent of the yards and 80 percent of the trips to the end zone.
He traveled there three times versus the Cleveland Browns alone.
Rounding out the list after Bennett was AJ Derby and veteran Clay Harbor, who both ultimately packed their bags by the midway point of the campaign without a catch. Then by winter’s turn, Matt Lengel unpacked his bags via the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad and went on to snare two passes for 22 yards and a TD through six games.
Perhaps someone like practice-squad addition Will Tye will be called upon by the end of this season to serve a similar part. As for now, the lack of tight end production outside of Gronkowski – who has as many grabs as Bennett did at this point in 2016 – isn’t something Belichick wants to spend much time discussing.
Seeing how the 4-2 Patriots lead the league in yards per game, first downs per game, passing yards per game and trail only the Packers and Houston Texans with 13 passing touchdowns, that’s understandable.
“Well, I mean, look, our job offensively is to move the ball and score points,” Belichick said on his conference call Monday. “So, however we can do that, that's what we're trying to do. I'm sure if we threw the ball to a bunch of other guys and didn't throw it to Gronkowski, we'd be asking why Rob didn't get more targets. So, I don't know. I mean, if he's out there and he has a good matchup, then Tom's going to give him a look and he's going to get some throws.”
The end results have been there at the tight end spot. Only the distribution to get those results hasn’t been.
When Gronkowski is on the field, it isn’t hard to see why. When he’s off of it, well, the Patriots will have to hope he won’t be often.