FOXBOROUGH — Four lockers down from the Patriots’ tight end of the future, the team’s tight end of the present goes about his business mostly unnoticed. Which isn’t all that different from his work on the football field.
Even on days when he doesn’t appear, Rob Gronkowski frequently draws curious media members to his locker area, wondering when he’ll be healthy enough to play again. Perhaps it’ll be Sunday night at the Georgia Dome, when the 3-0 Patriots face the Falcons in what figures to be the strongest test of their young season.
Gronkowski might be a game-time decision — he was officially listed as questionable on Friday’s injury report — but you can count on Michael Hoomanawanui being in uniform. The 25-year-old is still listed as the second-string tight end on the depth chart (behind Gronkowski), but he’s been given the opportunity early in the season to start and contribute in a variety of ways.
Most of his contributions don’t draw much attention. But there was Hoomanawanui last Sunday, catching two passes from Tom Brady in a 23-3 win over the Buccaneers. It tripled Hoomanawanui’s reception total for the season, going from one to three. It boosted his career catch total with the Patriots to eight, in 17 games.
“I still have the hands, they haven’t left me,” Hoomanawanui said this week. “When those opportunities do come to catch the ball, I have to make the most of them and be ready, and I think I’ve been able to do that so far. It definitely felt nice.”
Hoomanawanui has provided the Patriots with a versatile tight end while Gronkowski continues to recover from offseason surgeries. When last season ended, Hoomanawanui would have been listed anywhere from third to fifth on the team’s ranking of tight ends, definitely behind Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and possibly behind Daniel Fells and even Jake Ballard, who spent last season on injured reserve.
Funny how things play out. Gronkowski hasn’t played a snap yet, Hernandez is in jail facing a first-degree murder charge, and Fells and Ballard were both released at the end of training camp. That left Hoomanawanui, who had two things going for him: His versatility, and his willingness to rework his contract and accept a reduction in base salary, from $1.3 million to $630,000.
“Mike has done a nice job for us in multiple areas of our offense in the things that we’ve asked him to do,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “He’s been an effective blocker for us in the run game on the edge and he’s also done a decent job in pass protection when we’ve asked him to do that.
“He has good hands, and he certainly can catch the football and make some plays, and he has in the past. It was good to see him make a contribution in the passing game on Sunday, but he’s certainly played a big role in any success that we’ve had in a lot of areas on the offense because he’s played a lot of snaps for us.”
Snap count could become important to Hoomanawanui, because his reworked one-year deal has playing-time incentives, which if met could push his total salary near the level it was last season, his first with the Patriots after two in St. Louis.
He’s off to a great start. Of the Patriots’ 230 offensive plays through three games, Hoomanawanui has been on the field for 186, or 81 percent. The other Patriots tight ends have combined for just 56 snaps: Zach Sudfeld has 37, and Matthew Mulligan 19.
“That’s the last thing on my mind, really,” Hoomanawanui said, referring to the contract incentive that could pay him an additional $370,000 if he plays in 45 percent of the offensive snaps. “I have a lot of other things to worry about. I’ll worry about that later.”
He’s obviously aware of the opportunity he’s been given early in the season, and also aware that when Gronkowski comes back, his playing time could decrease. Gone, too, might be the two-catch, 31-yard games, like he had against Tampa Bay. He’s OK with that, on one condition.
“It’s definitely a big opportunity, but I wasn’t going to make it bigger than it already was. No matter who’s up or who’s down, I’ve always prepared the same way, and that’s when my number is called, to be ready,” Hoomanawanui said. “For three weeks, I think I’ve done pretty well, but there’s always room for improvement.
“My goal is to go out and play the best I can play and help this team win. I never go out there and say I hope or I want to get this many catches. All I care about is winning. If that means getting ‘X’ amount of catches or it means blocking ‘X’ amount of plays, as long as we win, I don’t really care.”