There is always uncertainty surrounding an NFL roster. Injuries can never be predicted, signings and releases happen with frequency, and there is the occasional surprise, like Brian Waters flat-out refusing to show up for the Patriots last year.
The Patriots now have a great deal of uncertainty at tight end, a position that just six or seven months ago was a strength of the team, featuring perhaps the best tandem in the league in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
But Gronkowski is likely going to be on the shelf going into the regular season after undergoing disk surgery Tuesday. The procedure has a recovery time of around 12 weeks, until the start of the September, though with the money the Patriots have invested in the All-Pro, they may opt to keep him on the physically unable to perform list for the first six weeks of the regular season.
The back procedure is just the latest surgery for Gronkowski, who also needed four surgeries on the left forearm he initially broke last November.
And now, of course, there is the Aaron Hernandez situation. As of Friday evening, Hernandez remained under investigation by state and local authorities in connection with the death of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd, ruled a homicide, though no arrest warrant had been issued.
Hernandez is also facing a civil suit seeking damages for a February incident in Florida in which he allegedly shot a friend in the face.
At this point, there is no way of knowing what will happen to Hernandez from a legal standpoint, but he is likely to face punishment from the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell has made it his mission, as he puts it, to uphold the shield, and he does not need an arrest or conviction to dole out suspensions under the league’s personal conduct policy.
Combined, Hernandez and Gronkowski played in 21 games last year, each losing time to injury. Even with fewer snaps, they were productive, with Hernandez recording 51 receptions for 483 yards and five touchdowns, and Gronkowski totaling 55 catches for 790 yards and 11 touchdowns.
With New England’s top two pass-catchers from last fall, Wes Welker (signed with Denver) and Brandon Lloyd (released) no longer with the team, the tight ends were the most familiar faces Tom Brady would have to start the year.
Tight end has been a major part of the offense since Gronkowski and Hernandez were drafted in 2010, and with the current question marks, it will be interesting to see if any adjustments are made, particularly since the available players are largely unknown quantities.
New England has five other tight ends on the roster: Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells, who had five and four catches, respectively, last year, plus Jake Ballard and rookies Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford.
Signed to a three-year free agent deal in 2012, it was expected that Fells would play a larger role than he did. Billed as a player who could block and catch, he did little of either, playing in more than 50 percent of the offensive snaps in just three games.
Hoomanawanui is not a tight end in the classic sense, and was used as a fullback at times. But he was good at picking up chunks of yardage, averaging almost 22 yards per reception.
Ballard has not played a snap since Super Bowl XLVI, when, as a member of the Giants (and against New England), he tore his left ACL. His rustiness was evident during spring camps as he works his way into playing shape.
But it seems many Patriots fans have pinned their hopes on Ballard, who was undrafted out of Ohio State in 2010. The 6-foot-6-inch, 275-pounder played in just one game as a rookie, but in 2011, he had 38 receptions for 604 yards and four touchdowns in 14 regular-season games, and had two receptions in the Super Bowl before his injury.
The Giants waived Ballard last year, believing he’d clear waivers and remain part of their team. But New England claimed him, and New York coach Tom Coughlin was not happy with the way the Patriots handled Ballard’s situation.
Ballard and Sudfeld will almost certainly get more opportunities during camp and into the season.
Sudfeld is 6-7, 255 pounds and was the rare athlete granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after losing basically two full seasons to major injury.
After catching a total of three passes in prior seasons, Sudfeld was a huge part of the Nevada offense in 2012, with 45 catches for 598 yards and eight touchdowns.
He moves fairly smoothly for a player his size, and showed well in spring camps, or as well as a player can in shirts-and-shorts practices.
Clemson product Ford was limited in spring camps, working with the rehab group. He is listed at 6-4, 240 pounds.