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If dress rehearsal offered an indication, Patriots’ third tight end is still offstage

As Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen got behind the wheel Friday night, two others took a backseat.

NFL: New England Patriots at Houston Texans Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

If Friday night at Ford Field was indeed a dress rehearsal, the New England Patriots’ third tight end still stands offstage.

Perhaps that’s where James O’Shaughnessy and Jacob Hollister will stay as the 90-man roster is trimmed to 53 on Sept. 2. Perhaps thinking the Patriots would reserve active spots behind Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen was more expectation than reality, given the tackle-eligible blockers, the versatile usage of the fullback, and the array of skill-position players worthy of handling the football.

There’s only room for so many behind the curtain. At tight end, there may just be two.

Over the first couple weeks of preseason action, Gronkowski and Allen entered into a game apiece, combined to play 31 snaps, and saw zero passes sent their respective directions. That was about what you’d expect from the team’s top duo, if not more. They blocked and seldom ran. But there was no shortage of run for neither four-time All-Pro nor the ex-Indianapolis Colt as the 7 p.m. ET kickoff got underway against the Detroit Lions.

Gronkowski drew the start, Allen was in alongside him by the second snap, and there they mostly remained up until the 8:56 mark in the third quarter when wholesale substitutions were made.

By then, Gronkowski had even reeled in his first preseason catch in five years. It arrived courtesy of Tom Brady.

That comes with the territory of the third exhibition. It is considered as the regular season’s dry run for a reason. Maybe it’s overanalyzed, maybe it’s not. The fact that James Develin split wide well before O’Shaughnessy or Hollister did, however, leaves cause to question just how large the latter loom in the Patriots’ plans moving forward.

O’Shaughnessy, who broke into the league as a Kansas City Chiefs fifth-round pick back in 2015, was sent to the Patriots along with a sixth-round pick this spring for a fifth-rounder. Around which time the organization signed Hollister as an undrafted rookie out of Wyoming.

Both had their chance to showcase through the first two weeks of preseason action. Both did.

The 6-foot-4, 239-pound Hollister stood apart as a fluid offline option in the opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, jumping and jarring his way to seven catches for 116 yards. And a week later versus the Houston Texans, it was the 6-foot-4, 245-pound O’Shaughnessy, formerly a core special-teamer for Kansas City, who gathered five for 41 in his Patriots debut after finishing 2016 with two for minus-one.

The second-longest tenured member of the depth chart in Foxborough, Matt Lengel, remained absent due to injury during that span. And free-agent Nebraska product Sam Cotton filed in as a late-gamer, catching two passes for 29 yards.

That afforded No. 88 and No. 48 with room to work up through Detroit.

But there’s still much left to be gleaned after what took place there.

Hollister and O’Shaughnessy checked in on the kickoff-coverage unit following New England’s initial touchdown drive against the Lions. Both also factored in when it came to covering punts, and Hollister got a look in the kickoff- and punt-return cadres as well. That side of things might be what it’ll take for either to outlast the departures of some 37 players over the next week.

Nonetheless, having an offensive impact is what’ll keep them there.

Neither managed to on Friday.

O’Shaughnessy’s first offensive down hit as part of a three-tight end set on first-and-goal touchdown run by Mike Gillislee with 6:30 left in the first quarter. O’Shaughnessy made his way back into the huddle for a second and third rep during the Patriots’ final drive of the first half; both of which wound up being D.J. Foster carries to drain the clock. He finished with one dropped target from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo on a stick route.

It wasn’t until midway through fourth that Hollister stepped on for his most frequent snaps with the offense. He concluded the Patriots’ 30-28 win over the Lions with fewer opportunities in that phase than his twin brother, Cody, a wide receiver from Arkansas, and did not have the ball thrown his way.

That’ll have to change when the New York Giants visit Thursday.

A potential role on the 53 behind Gronkowski and Allen may otherwise not be in play.