Each week leading up to the draft, the Foxboro Blog crew will spend a week breaking down a position on the Patriots' roster. We'll start with a quick overview and then move onto a discussion involving potential draftees at that spot as well as free-agents that the Patriots may pursue. Up this week are the tight ends...
2010 Recap: After an abysmal performance in 2009 from the tight end position, Bill Belichick decided it was time for wholesale changes. He completely revamped the roster by signing veteran free-agent Alge Crumpler and drafting two promising prospects in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. These new additions revitalized the New England offense, as the tight end corps went from being utterly impotent, to perhaps the most impressive part of the Patriots' attack.
The two rookie tight ends had very productive, but very opposite seasons. Early in the year, it was Aaron Hernandez, the NFL's youngest player, who was burning past opposing defender and racking up yards. Unfortunately, he was hampered with a hip injury towards the end of the year, which caused his production to dip. In almost a complete contrast to Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski started the year slowly, but then picked up steam as the year went on. By the end of 2010 he was arguably Tom Brady's top red zone target, hauling in 7 TD receptions in the final 8 regular season games. It was an impressive run that put him on the cusp of being named to the Pro Bowl.
While the rookies garnered much of the attention and stats, it would be an absolute crime to gloss over Alge Crumpler's impact in 2010. Not only was he an unsung hero in the blocking game, but by all accounts, he was a tremendous mentor to both Gronkowski and Hernandez. Crumpler made a point of taking the two rookies under his wing and teaching them how to survive in the NFL. I think it's safe to say that the huge leap forward the Patriots saw at tight end in 2010 was a direct result of Crumpler's hard work and mentorship.
Not to be lost in all the praise, is also the fact that major gaffes by the tight ends played a role in two of the Patriots' three losses. In Week 9 against Clevelend, Gronkowski botched the return of New England's first kickoff, resulting in a fumble. Then with the opportunity to bring the game close right before halftime, Gronkowski fumbled the ball at the goal line, preventing the Patriots from hanging up seven points. In the playoffs, it was Alge Crumper who dropped a touch down pass from Tom Brady early in the game. The Pats were forced to kick a field goal and were unable to get the early lead they had wanted to put some serious pressure on New York. The Jets were able to maintain their confidence, and, well... let's just move on.
Returning Players: Carson Butler, Alge Crumpler, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez
Patriots Free-Agents: None
2011 Outlook: With Hernandez and Gronkowski's strong rookie performances, the future seems bright for New England at the tight end spot. Some things to watch out for in 2011 include a spike Big Rob Gronk's red zone production, as well as his ability to get open across the middle and create some easy passes for Tom Brady. In my book, Gronkowski is the 2010 rookie that's most likely to make a huge leap forward in his sophomore season. Aaron Hernandez struggled some with his route running this past year. If he can tighten those routes up as well as stay healthy, there's no reason to think he won't be even more of a bigger offensive threat in 2011. With two promising young prospects, it's hard to imagine the Patriots' investing draft selections in the tight end position, yet again. However, Alge Crumpler certainly isn't getting any younger, and neither Hernandez or Gronkowski possess the blocking ability that he displayed last season. We're probably a year away from the Patriots needing to seriously consider replacing Crumpler, but if the right player presented himself through free-agency or the draft, it wouldn't be unthinkable for Belichick to make a move to help bolster the offensive line.