By: Mike Saver/Saver-Sports.com
June 26, 2010

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While the Patriots failed to pick up a big name pass rusher this offseason (which many experts had as their most glaring need) the reigning division champs do figure to improve in a key area - the red zone.


Tom Brady and the Patriots struggled inside the 20-yard line in 2010
(PHOTO CREDIT: Icon/SMI)
It's easy to forget now, but New England struggled to come away with 6 points inside the 20 last season. There were many reasons for this. One being a lack of a solid running back. However, whether you like it or not, the Patriots are a pass-first team. Brady is their greatest offensive weapon and, arguably, his arm gives them a better chance to score down there. However, Brady had some key turnovers in that area himself, mostly coming from forced throws to Randy Moss. This raises a concern. If Brady is having to consistently force the ball to a play-maker, it shows he doesn't have many options. Obviously, this doesn't excuse Brady's interceptions. However, the lack of an offensive arsenal was apparent last season and no more obvious than in the red zone.

Close to the goal line, there isn't a more efficient position to throw to than a tight end.

Many were shocked when New England released Chris Baker after losing Ben Watson to free agency. This left the position to be filled only by free-agent pick up and aging veteran, Alge Crumpler, who is most notable as a blocker. It's obvious New England was dissatisfied with the production at tight end and they looked to fill the need in the draft.

Rookies, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, figure to help the Patriots improve both at the position and within the 20. Fourth round pick, Aaron Hernandez, was one of the most prolific tight ends in college football last season: winning the Mackey award and hauling in 68 footballs for 850 yards. Daniel Jeremiah, respected ex-NFL scout and writer of Move the Sticks, has Hernandez picked as the steal of the 2010 draft.

The young tight end has been a stand out in practices thus far. "Everything is going good", said the rookie. "I'm going out every practice and working as hard as I can, trying to make some plays." Hernandez has shown some versatility (he can be found on the line, in motion, or split out wide) which is likely to get him more playing time. As noted before, Crumpler excels as a blocker on the line. Hernandez's pass catching skills compliment him nicely and is likely the reason the two are taking so many reps together.

Hernandez has even impressed Brady. ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss writes, "..as Brady was watching a 7-on-7 drill led by backup quarterback Brian Hoyer, the quarterback took note of a sharp route run by Hernandez in the red zone. After Hernandez caught the pass for a touchdown, Brady's voice boomed out to congratulate him.

Rob Gronkowski, one of the top ranked tight ends in the draft, is more of a pure tight end. As a result, he figures to get less playing time than Hernandez this year - as he'll be playing directly behind Alge Crumpler. However, he should not be overlooked.

Gronkowski missed last season with a back injury but was one of the University of Arizona's key weapons within the red zone. In 2008 he caught 47 passes, 10 of which were for touchdowns. Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald, brought up some great points a while ago about the Pats' second round selection.

"[In 2008]...Arizona had the sixth-ranked red-zone offense in the country, due in part to Gronkowski's contributions. This past season, without him in the lineup, the Wildcats dropped to 97th."

Patriots coach Bill Belichick acknowledged Gronkowski's abilities in the red zone in discussing his skill set back in April.

"He was a pretty effective guy for them. At times they put him out on the weak side of the formation, down inside the 20, or on the goal line.'"

Last season, a lack of a valid option at tight end greatly contributed to New England's red zone struggles. Ben Watson and Chris Baker failed to put up notable numbers in '09, catching only 7 touchdowns between the two of them.

Tight end production leads to red zone results. For example, the 49er's Vernon Davis was one of the most prolific tight ends in the league last season, catching an NFL record-tying 13 touchdowns. 8 of those scores came in the red zone. Not only did he catch more touchdowns than both of the Patriots' tight ends but, he caught more within the 20 than Baker and Watson's combined season total.

While Davis is a terrific and unique talent, he serves as an example of the results a prolific tight end can bring in the red zone. Production at this spot will be key to the Patriots' success. Last season, many games could've been won for New England if they had been able to come away with 6 points instead of 3 (or none, due to failed fourth down conversions). On paper, Gronkowski and Hernandez give Brady some threatening options - especially in that part of the field. Hopefully, that translates to reality in September.

Mike Saver is a regular contributor to PatsFans.com and covers Boston Sports for Saver-Sports.com and CelticsLife.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @SaverSports, as well as Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/saversports)


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