The Patriots head into training camp in just a few weeks and there should be plenty of competition at a number of spots. As a lead-in to the beginning of camp, we’ll break down the positions and give our take on who is a lock, a near lock for the 53-man roster and who is on the bubble.
Bill Belichick likes to say that the spring is a learning exercise and that the competition begins in training camp. While that is true to an extent, with 88 players on board, 35 of these current members of the roster now, at a minimum will be cut.
We’ve already looked at the running backs and wide receivers….next up are the tight ends. This area, like the WRs had a ton of question marks to begin 2014 that ended up being a huge area of strength for the team.
This spring Bill Belichick made a couple of surprise moves, timing-wise as the team released both Tim Wright and former Redskin Fred Davis. Davis was looking to find a new home after being out of the NFL last year, dealing with both a suspension and an Achilles injury. Wright was a surprise because he did have success with the Patriots in the red-zone during the early and middle parts of the season with six touchdowns from Tom Brady. He did fade production wise down the stretch but some of that had to do with Rob Gronkowski catching fire.
But the fact that neither was even brought to training camp signifies that neither was a deemed a fit for the team this season.
So who’s locked in and who’s on the bubble?
Roster Locks: Rob Gronkowski, Scott Chandler
Gronkowski started slowly last season, being strictly monitored and kept out of contact until the final day of training camp. It took a good month of the season for Gronk to find his rhythm with Tom Brady but once he did he took off.
Gronk showed that when healthy, he’s the best all-around tight end in the game and finished with 82 catches for 1124 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was practically unstoppable as his athleticism was more than a match for most linebackers and safeties were unable to cope with his size and physicality.
His playoff numbers totaled 16 catches for 204 yards and three touchdowns, one in each Patriots playoff win. Against the defending champion Seahawks in the Super Bowl, whenever Brady saw Gronkowski lined up in single coverage, they went to him. He ended up with 6 catches for 68 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown.
The good part is that Gronkowski is still only 26 years old, although his playing style doesn't necessarily translate into a long playing career, he's still young enough to have several very productive years left.
Scott Chandler was signed as a free agent from the Buffalo Bills this spring. The 6’7, 260 pound tight end was always a thorn in the Patriots side and last season gathered in 6 catches for 105 yards in the first meeting of the season. Chandler caught 100 passes the past two seasons for Buffalo catching passes from the likes of Kyle Orton, E.J. Manuel et al. But working with Brady and beside Gronkowski, we should see a lot of the two-tight end sets in 2015.
Chandler isn’t the athletic freak that Gronk is, but doesn’t have to be. He can still attack the seams of the defense and he and Gronkowski give Brady two huge targets that will present match-up nightmares for opposing defenses. They will also be tough to cover in the red zone as we've heard that has been a specific area that they worked on this spring.
Chandler can conceivably catch fewer passes than his 47 receptions from 2014 and yet still be much more productive. He and Gronk present a 1-2 punch, that is both huge and athletic. They should open up big areas for the WRs to operate in underneath. The Pats tight end position is looking strong to start the season off.
Near Locks: Michael Hoomanawanui
Hoomanawanui, or Hoo-man to his teammates is close to being a lock himself. While he’s not the receiver that either Gronkowski or Chandler is, Hoomanawanui is a fairly capable one when called upon.
He caught only three passes during the regular season, but added in four catches for 43 yards in the divisional playoff win over Baltimore. He added a single catch in the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl. Brady has shown that he will go to Hooman when the situation calls for it and he’s a capable back-up. Where he has shown good ability has been as a blocker. Hoomanawanui, while not a devastating blocker in the Gronk mode, has been capable.
With the additions of Chandler, Davis and Derby to go along with Gronkowski and Wright from last season, the future didn’t look too bright for Hooman for 2015. But now Wright and Davis are gone before training camp even starts and all of a sudden Hoomanawanui's slot is looking a lot more certain.
Hooman’s slot as the backup to Gronkowski and Chandler is his to lose. Develin could be included in here but we listed him in with the running backs. Both are good blockers, can catch the ball and are versatile enough to line up in-line, outside or as an H-back.
Next …the guys on the bubble
On the Bubble: A.J. Derby, Jake Bequette, Jimmay Mundine
Derby has proto-typical size at 6’5, 255 for a tight end but is still raw. He played only one season at tight end after making the conversion from quarterback at Arkansas. He did catch 22 passes in just 8 starts. He can generate some yards after the catch and as a former QB, displays nice hands.
But his route-running needs to be refined and his blocking technique needs to improve. The 6th round draft pick is in a position to be able to work his way onto the roster. He may have a red-shirt type season where he learns from the veterans and improves his craft from the practice squad. However, being a former QB, he understands how the offense is supposed to work and he may pick things up pretty quickly.
Bequette also changed positions this spring and after being unable to crack the roster as a defensive end, he’s now trying to work into the tight end mix. He too has proto-typical size at 6’5, 265 and while I consider his chances to be a long-shot, he does have the versatility to play different positions and has been around for the past few years. Don't write him off just yet. He'll be a guy to watch in the blocking drills as that may be his best chance to earn a roster spot.
Mundine is slightly undersized at 6’2, 240 and isn’t a great blocker. He projects to be more of a thicker-bodied wide receiver or a flex tight end than an in-line one. Much like Wright who is now out of the picture however, he could fulfill a role that the team could use.
He only had one true season as a starter and had inconsistent production but is an intriguing prospect as he could be the flex tight end or H-back with some pretty impressive athleticism. He’s a long shot for the 53 man roster but could easily end up on the practice squad. He's another guy that will bear watching, with the team trying to limit Gronkowski's and Chandler's reps in training camp and the pre-season, he may see enough snaps to earn him a long look.
The Patriots tight end position is in good shape entering 2015. Gronkowski is healthy for the first time in a few years early and with the addition of Chandler gives them a 1-2 punch that is arguably the best in the NFL. With some good depth candidates behind them, that will be the area to watch in camp. Who emerges as the third option behind the Big 2.
Stay tuned, we’ll be down at training camp filing daily updates about the goings-on with the Pats as they begin the march to the 53 man roster.