The New England Patriots started the 2017 regular season with three tight ends on the active roster, and outside of a two-game spell, three remained the depth chart’s magic number by the finish of it.
But there was another tight end around from Week 6 through Super Bowl LII.
Will Tye could’ve been signed off the practice squad at any time. Only Rob Gronkowski’s one-game suspension wasn’t enough to crack that window. The re-claimed Martellus Bennett’s placement on injured reserve wasn’t either.
Tye remained where he began on Oct. 12 instead. And while that doesn’t inspire much confidence in his prospects moving forward, it does little to dim the intrigue.
“Athletic, improved a lot,” head coach Bill Belichick told reporters of Tye in his Dec. 6 press conference, via Patriots.com. “We’ve asked him to do some things that he’s worked on and he’s shown good improvement in. He’s a big guy that can run and can catch, and has presence on the line of scrimmage to block. So, he’s done a good job.”
The most experienced member of the Patriots’ year-end practice squad – and 2018 class of reserve-futures signings – Tye originally entered the league as an undrafted free agent out of Stony Brook in 2015.
The transfer by way of Florida State caught one pass behind Mackey Award winner Nick O’Leary before going on to reel in 79 for 1,015 yards and nine touchdowns – as well as 30 punt returns for 166 yards – over two seasons in the Colonial Athletic Association. Tye was clocked running as low as a 4.47-second 40-yard dash at the school’s pro day that April, and he went on to become the first Seawolves product to appear in an NFL regular-season game the following fall.
Tye started seven of his 13 appearances for the New York Giants that year, amassing 42 receptions to lead the position in the absence of Larry Donnell. With those catches came 464 yards, three touchdowns, and a spot on the Pro Football Writers of America’s All-Rookie team.
He’d secure another 48 passes during his second season with the Giants, netting 395 yards and one boxed-out trip the end zone over the course of 10 starts and all 16 games. But despite re-upping with New York on a one-year, $615,000 exclusive-rights deal in February 2017, the writing soon reached the wall.
The Giants signed Rhett Ellison in free agency and drafted Evan Engram in the first round. And the 6-foot-2, 256-pound Tye, for all his positional flexibility, was no longer a fit by September.
A brief-but-prolonged stay in East Rutherford would be in the cards for Tye.
It consisted of four receptions for 38 yards through three contests and one start for the New York Jets. Although as veteran Austin Seferian-Jenkins returned from a two-game suspension, the situation became more of the same.
Tye returned to the transaction wire for the second time in four weeks. Unlike the first, there would be no claims filed with the league office.
But not often does a player with 1,326 career snaps, 94 catches, 897 yards and four touchdowns proceed to join a practice squad. That was the avenue Tye traveled nine days later after the Patriots, whom he’d gone against twice in the preseason and once in the regular season, brought him in for a free-agent workout.
Walking into a room occupied by Gronkowski, trade acquisition Dwayne Allen and undrafted rookie Jacob Hollister, Tye saw Allen and Hollister close the campaign with 14 receptions for 128 yards and one touchdown combined. He saw an ailing Bennett, surrounded by the failure-to-disclose-injury typhoon, play 24 downs with a torn rotator cuff before landing on IR with a hamstring injury.
Tye saw a pair of practice player of the week honors and no promotion.
Perhaps Allen’s blocking held adequate if not one-dimensional value to New England, who sent a fourth-rounder to the Indianapolis Colts to acquire him and the remainder of his four-year, $29.4 million contract last March. Perhaps Hollister’s receiving skillset and growing role on special teams – where he logged 41 percent of the snaps – meant more as a developmental No. 3 option. Perhaps Bennett’s track record in the offense and with quarterback Tom Brady just outweighed Tye’s lack thereof.
But Tye made enough sense for New England to want to retain him. So as his practice-squad contract expired earlier this month, the organization did.
The Middletown, Conn., native finds himself accompanied by the same familiar names entering the 2018 league year. Though there are more question marks ahead of it than there were in the fall. There’s the uncertainty of Gronkowski’s football future, and the same goes for the 30-year-old Bennett, who is under contract through 2019 with a cap hit north of $6 million this upcoming season. The Patriots could also release Allen with zero dead money or attempt to restructure his $4.5 million base salary for 2018. And as for Hollister, well, the former Wyoming Cowboy may be more of a given than most of the aforementioned.
What’s that make Tye? It’s fair to wonder.
The Patriots still have reason to find out.