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Ranking the tight end units the Patriots will face in 2017

Positional Rankings Series: The Patriots’ 2017 opponents — tight ends.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at San Diego Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

In this series we’ll rank the positional groups for each of the thirteen teams on the Patriots’ 2017 regular season schedule. We’ll start at the core of the defensive front seven and work outward throughout the defense. Then we’ll do the same for the offense, ultimately finishing at the quarterback position.

Have you missed a position in this series? Catch up here:

Defense: Int. DL Edge DefendersLinebackersSafetiesCornerbacks

Offense: Int. OLTackles — Tight Ends — Running Backs — Wide Receivers — Quarterbacks

From creating mismatches with defensive personnel packages, to providing quarterbacks with a more substantial target in the limited space of the red zone, a fundamentally sound, versatile tight end group is essential to maintain a balanced offensive attack.

This isn’t news to Patriots Fans.

Here are the thirteen tight end units that the Patriots’ secondary will be tasked with stopping in 2017.

1. Los Angeles Chargers

Heading into his fifteenth NFL season, Antonio Gates is still producing. Last season he logged fifty-three catches and found the end zone seven times while splitting snaps with 2016 second-round pick Hunter Henry. The former Arkansas Razorback shined in his rookie year, snagging eight touchdowns.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Rookies have typically dragged teams’ rankings down in this series, but not here. Former Alabama Crimson Tide tight end O.J. Howard is an absolute beast. Whether blocking or high-pointing end zone targets, Howard’s size and athleticism will create an immediate impact for Tampa’s offense. Cameron Brate, a Naperville,IL native who went undrafted out of Harvard in 2014, reeled in fifty-seven catches and eight touchdowns in a breakout 2016 campaign. Brate and Howard give quarterback Jameis Winston lethal pair of massive, young red zone targets.

3. Kansas City Chiefs

Travis Kelce’s elite production and status as the best tight end in football not named Gronkowski carries this Chiefs group to the third spot in this ranking. Demetrius Harris, who was on the receiving end of Dontari Poe’s famous touchdown pass last season, figures to once again fill the slot behind Kelce on the depth chart.

4. Houston Texans

C.J. Fiedorowicz, a former Iowa Hawkeye entering his fourth season, has quietly matured into a quality NFL tight end. He and Londonderry,NH native Ryan Griffin, a former Connecticut Husky, form a pair of six-foot six-inch red zone targets. Although they may not jump out at you when scouring over the stat sheets, keep in mind that, for the entirety of their careers, they have been forced to endure some of the NFL’s worst quarterback play. Nevertheless, despite the truly awful decision making and inaccuracy of Brock Osweiler, the duo still managed to accumulate 104 receptions for 1,001 yards and six touchdowns last season.

5. Carolina Panthers

Greg Olsen, Cam Newton’s favorite target and an annual top-three NFL tight end, enters his eleventh season on the heels of three straight one thousand yard receiving campaigns. Veteran Ed Dickson, who provides little in the way of receiving production or run blocking value, returns as Olsen’s primary backup in 2017.

6. Oakland Raiders

Could the addition of Jared Cook to an already potent Oakland offense be the move that puts the Raiders over the top in the AFC West? He’ll look to become Derek Carr’s seam-splitting target over the middle — a role Clive Walford and current Jaguar Mychal Rivera failed to evolve into in seasons past. Veteran run-blocking specialist Lee Smith helps to bolster this unit’s ranking as well.

7. Buffalo Bills

Fueled by a career high 102 targets, Charles Clay’s sixty-nine catch season in 2013 earned him a lucrative free agent contract in Buffalo two years later. Currently the deal makes him the NFL’s seventh highest paid tight end. Unfortunately for Clay, he has been dogged in fantasy football circles for failing to produce as he did four seasons ago. However, Clay is still an excellent run blocker, and when healthy, still a consistent intermediate threat for quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Nick O’Leary, the grandson of golf legend Jack Nicklaus, projects to be Clay’s primary backup once again this season.

8. Miami Dolphins

Proving to have simply been a byproduct of the Peyton Manning-led offensive machine in Denver, tight end Julius Thomas is unlikely to ever return to the pre-Jacksonville form that saw him reel in twenty-nine touchdowns in three seasons en route to two Pro Bowls. However, he’s still a large, capable target who is healthy heading into training camp. Veteran Anthony Fasano was PFF’s best run-blocking tight end in 2016.

9. Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons’ tight end unit is comprised of two former Stanford Cardinal. 2016 third-round pick Austin Hooper looks to build on his solid rookie campaign, while six-foot eight-inch backup Levine Toilolo heads into his fifth NFL season following the signing of a three-year, $12 million contract extension this offseason.

10. New Orleans Saints

Leading a tight end group that includes former Patriots Michael Hoomanawanui and Clay Harbor, Coby Fleener saw a noticeable dip in his PFF grade last season despite logging his fourth consecutive fifty-catch season. Backup Josh Hill looks to return from a broken fibula sustained last December.

11. Denver Broncos

With only Virgil Green and Jeff Heuerman ahead of him on the current projected Broncos depth chart, former Patriot A.J. Derby couldn’t ask for a better situation. The addition of talented Michigan tight end Jake Butt, who is recovering from an Orange Bowl ACL tear, should give this group a shove in the right direction next year.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Ladarius Green era in Pittsburgh is over before it ever really got off the ground, which means underwhelming third-year tight end Jesse James will once again have the starting gig all to himself. It’s a role that isn’t likely to effect the Steelers’ offensive game plan too much in general, as there are plenty of mouths to feed in Ben Roethlisberger’s huddle.

13. New York Jets

Clemson rookie Jordan Leggett and Austin Seferian-Jenkins could theoretically battle for the Jets’ starting tight end role in training camp, but does it really matter?

How would you rank these units?

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter - @Bphillips_PP