Rob Gronkowski hasn’t had to worry about rehabbing this offseason. (Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2015 Patriots. We started with the wide receivers. Now, it’s the tight ends.
Depth chart (2014 regular-season stats via Pro Football Reference): Rob Gronkowski (82 catches, 131 targets, 1,124 yards, 12 TDs), Tim Wright (26 catches, 33 targets, 259 yards, 6 TDs), Michael Hoomananwanui (3 catches, 6 targets, 44 yards), Scott Chandler (47 catches, 70 targets, 497 yards, 3 TDs with Buffalo), A.J. Derby (rookie), Jimmay Mundine (rookie).
THREE THINGS WE KNOW
1. Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in the game. There may be better pure blockers, and there might be guys who are better at only catching passes. But there’s no one right now at the tight end position who offers a better combo package — to go along with the overpowering physical skills — than Gronkowski. Simply put, he’s an elite skill position player, the sort of difference maker who can help elevate the New England offense. After injuries brought his 2012 and 2013 seasons to a premature end, he reclaimed his throne in 2014: Including the playoffs, he topped 90 receiving yards in seven games last year, and had six or more catches in nine games while becoming a genuine MVP candidate. We’ve used this analogy before, but when the production has dipped for Gronkowski, it’s faintly reminiscent of the old quote that said the only person who could hold Michael Jordan to single digits in scoring was Dean Smith. When teams went full-tilt after Gronkowski, that opened things up for other targets in the passing game, namely Julian Edelman or Brandon LaFell.
2. Few targets have managed to develop an extraordinary level of cohesiveness with quarterback Tom Brady in a relatively short time better than Gronkowski. Gronkowski has 307 catches in 65 career regular-season games with quarterback Tom Brady. Among quarterback/pass catcher combinations in New England since 2001, only Wes Welker (who had 563 catches in 78 regular-season games with Brady over the course of his career in New England) reached 300 receptions from Brady in quicker fashion. For what it’s worth, the big tight end is currently fifth on the all-time list of most regular-season receptions via Brady (307), and could move into second overall behind Welker by the end of the 2015 season. (For a deeper dive into those numbers, click here.)
3. Disparage Michael Hoomananwanui all you want. Just know that you need players like that to be successful. To be sure, Hoomananwanui is never going to be confused with an All-Pro. But in his three seasons with the Patriots, he’s demonstrated himself to be someone who has a good positional versatility (he’s played both tight end and fullback), and is an adequate blocker. In addition, in his career in New England, he’s caught 20 of the 31 passes thrown in his direction for a perfectly respectable catch rate of 65 percent, and has been durable enough to play in 43 of a possible 48 regular-season games. He’s cost-effective, has three years in the system, and is a good locker room guy who doesn’t labor under any delusions that he’s competing with Gronkowski for opportunities in the passing game. In short, he’s a classic role player who has managed to find a nice niche in New England.
1. Who will take Tim Wright’s snaps? After what appeared to be a relatively strong middle of the season — as well as a knack for dependability, particularly in the red zone — Wright fell off the radar at the end of the season with just 10 snaps in three playoff games. Whether it was game plan or personnel, Wright fell out of favor as the Patriots shifted gears. (On the surface, it may have been a decision to ride the hot hand of someone like wide receiver Danny Amendola, but truthfully, that’s just an educated guess.) Regardless, his offseason release will certainly open the door for another tight end, and while he doesn’t do many of the same things — Wright was more of a glorified receiver — it’ll likely be Chandler who will see most of the snaps when New England goes to a two-tight end set in 2015.
2. Can Gronkowski stay healthy? The narrative around Gronkowski and his health has changed dramatically since he first arrived in 2010. Following a college career sidetracked by injuries, he entered the league with a rep as someone who might have trouble staying on the field. (Truthfully, that was one of the reasons he lasted until the second round of the 2010 draft.) But he quickly established himself as a player who was able to answer the bell as needed, playing in 46 straight games from 2010 through 2012 to open his professional career. But arm and knee issues robbed him of a sizable portion of the 2012 and 2013 seasons — from the midway point of the ’12 campaign to the end of the ’13 slate he played in only nine of a possible 26 contests. However, since the start of the 2014 season, he’s been able to flip the storyline again. He played in 15 consecutive games to open last season (he logged a DNP-CD in the regular-season finale), marking the longest consecutive games played stretch since the beginning of his professional career. (That doesn’t even account him going wire-to-wire in all three playoff games.) The health of Gronk will remain paramount going into 2015; Brandon LaFell wasn’t just blowing smoke when he said last October, “With a healthy Gronk, we’re a whole different team.”
3. Should the Patriots expect anything out of the two rookie tight ends, Derby and Mundine? Derby has a fascinating backstory, and while it would be a bit much to expect him to beat out Chandler or Hoomananwanui for backup tight end duties in 2015, he’s certainly an intriguing prospect who could end up on the practice squad for a few reasons, not the least of which is the fact that his positional versatility (he played some quarterback as a collegian) could make him valuable in the long term. As for Mundine, he could be a bit of a wild card — the 6-foot-2, 240-pounder is a highly athletic undrafted free agent out of Kansas who could also ultimately land on the practice squad if everything falls into place. (Mundine has the most touchdowns by a tight end in Kansas history with 11, and last season, he set a single season record for a tight end in school history with 584 receiving yards.)
By the numbers: 79 — In his first season with the Patriots, Wright managed to set a new mark for dependability in the passing game with his 79 percent catch rate, a high for any offensive skill position player who was targeted at least 20 times in a single season. The tight end broke the previous mark of 77 percent, set by five different pass catchers, most recently Danny Woodhead (who caught 34 of 44 passes in 2010). Of course, that sure-handed skill is nothing new for Wright, who now has a two-year total as a pro (with the Bucs and Patriots) of 73 percent, a remarkable total for any receiver.
Key new player: Chandler. There were several notable things about what happened over the course of spring workouts, but the sight of Chandler and Gronkowski working together in two-tight end sets in the red zone was perhaps the most intriguing. That’s a lot of size close to the goal line. Provided bit cab stay healthy, a Gronkowski-Chandler duo will certainly give defensive coordinators ice cream headaches over the course of the 2015 season, particularly in the red zone.
The skinny: While Chandler, Hoomanawanui and the rookies will certainly be part of the tight end conversation, it begins and ends with Gronkowski. If he’s able to stay healthy, he makes the New England offense one of the best in the league. The scary thing? For the first offseason since the one immediately following his rookie year of 2010, Gronkowski has not had to worry about spending an offseason working through some sort of rehab. (“I just come out here and do what I have to do — try and get better every single day,” he said this past spring after a workout. “It’s an honor, after the whole offseason, to come out practice every single day and work on what I have to work on instead of trying to rehab something.”) As a result, he could very well be poised for his best season yet.