FOXBOROUGH — Seemingly overnight, a position of strength for the Patriots, a position that was arguably the strongest in the NFL, became a question mark: tight end.
With Rob Gronkowski undergoing surgeries on his arm and then back and Aaron Hernandez now cut loose after being charged with murder, New England is currently left with three unheralded players and two rookies to try to approximate the production it has gotten from Gronkowski and Hernandez in recent seasons.
Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells, and Michael Hoomanawanui, as well as Brandon Ford and Zach Sudfeld, both undrafted, enter camp trying to win playing time and prove that they can step in admirably.
The situation had coach Bill Belichick alluding to the tale of Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig during his Saturday morning news conference.
“We’ve all gotten opportunities because of one reason or another, of something that happened to somebody who was in front of us and being able to take advantage of those opportunities,” Belichick said. “If it’s there, they can do it.”
The player or players who step to the fore will have big shoes to fill: though they missed a combined 11 regular-season games last season, Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 106 receptions, 1,273 yards, and 16 touchdowns; a year earlier, Gronkowski had the greatest performance in a season by a tight end in league history (90 receptions, 1,327 yards, 17 TDs) and Hernandez was excellent as well (79 receptions, 910 yards, 7 TDs).
Fells and Hoomanawanui combined for nine catches last year, though both averaged over 21 yards per catch.
The Patriots claimed Ballard just over a year ago, after the Giants released him with the intention of the Ohio State product clearing waivers and reverting to their injured reserve so he could recover from the torn ACL he suffered in Super Bowl XLVI. Instead, he’s been rehabbing in New England.
Ford (Clemson) and Sudfeld (Nevada) both come to the Patriots after just one year as starters for their respective college programs.
Belichick said that Fells had a good spring, which brought a small smile to Fells’s face when it was relayed by a reporter after Saturday’s practice.
“After being in the [Patriots’] system for a year I feel a little bit more comfortable, just hearing the plays and being able to fly without thinking, it’s a lot more reacting this year,” Fells said. “I have a year off my injury and I’m able to come out and run around with a little bit more confidence. I’m hoping it reflects as I go out there every single day, because I have to get better every single day.”
Fells missed nearly all of training camp last year with a leg injury, and also spent time on the injury report with a shin issue. His first goal this season is to participate in every training camp practice; through two days, he’s off to a good start.
He acknowledged that his first year with the Patriots was a frustrating one, both because of his injuries and his inconsistent playing time when he felt he was healthy enough to contribute.
“Me being a competitor I always want to be on the field and do all I can, but obviously there’s the physical side of things as well as the mental side of things and the coaches have their evaluations and I may sit here and say that I’m at a certain level,” he said. “I wish I could have participated a little more, but ultimately they’re going to put whoever on the field that they see fit so I’ve got to show them that I’m fit to do it.”
Ballard is still getting some of the rust off after being away from the field for so long; he looked like he was laboring a bit during spring practices but has been smoother thus far in camp.
He also has lost weight, dropping from 278 pounds to 260, in part to take some stress off his knee and to help his flexibility.
“I think he has good, solid, physical characteristics,” Belichick said of Ballard. “Works hard, smart kid, he’s got a good attitude, works hard on his preparation and he’s worked very hard on his rehab. I’d say it’s great for him to be able to make that kind of progress, get back out on the field, attain that goal of just being able to get back out and play competitively on a field.
“We’ll see how it goes from here.”
Hoomanawanui has versatility similar to Hernandez, and is lining up at both tight end and fullback in his determination to do whatever is asked of him to help the team.
Drafted by St. Louis in 2010, Hoomanawanui had a different offensive coordinator each year he was with the team, including heading into 2012, but he was cut on the eve of the season. One of the three coordinators he had with the Rams, Josh McDaniels, brought him to the Patriots, where he had to learn yet another offense.
For the first time, he’s gotten some familiarity in a system, even as he’s asked to play multiple roles.
“The old adage is, ‘the more you can do.’ So you take that lunchpail to work every day and the more tools you’ve got in the tool box, they say that’s better,” Hoomanawanui said. “Special teams, can never forget about those, offensively, defensively, whatever it is, I think that’s still around these days and it’s showing out right now the movement [between positions] they have me doing here and there. I’ll just keep getting better at all of them and hopefully it will pan out in the end.”
Ford was not able to participate in OTAs because of injury, though Sudfeld was and has showed well in his brief tenure.
Belichick was asked about the development of Hoomanawanui and Sudfeld, and while saying they’ve both made progress, summed up the entire tight end situation.
“As always, unfortunately when the players that are on your team can’t perform, it gives more opportunities to somebody else, wherever that is,” Belichick said. “Then what those people can do with that opportunity, sometimes it comes at different levels but . . . we’ve all seen people take advantage of those opportunities.
“I think Mike ‘Hooman’ and Zach have done that. They’ve worked hard, they’ve certainly taken advantage of the reps that they’ve gotten and they’ve definitely gotten more because some of the players that would normally be at the position weren’t practicing.”