BOSTON (CBS) -- When it comes to 6-foot-6 athletic freaks of nature, they don't come around too often. And so, when a player of Rob Gronkowski's caliber gets put on the shelf due to injury, there's very little that a team can do to replace him.
But life goes on, and with a thin crop of available tight ends on the roster, it's going to take a group effort to even stand in during the absence of No. 87 on the field. That's an effort that largely centers on Martellus Bennett, but it also should include the only other tight end on the roster -- Matt Lengel.
The Patriots signed Lengel off the Bengals' practice squad in early November. A second-year NFL player, Lengel has yet to record a reception. In fact, he's been active for just one game -- the Patriots' Week 12 visit to San Francisco, where he played just six snaps.
Despite the inexperience, Bill Belichick complimented the 25-year-old's ability to learn the Patriots' offense in a relatively short amount of time.
"Matt has got a little bit of experience. He was on the Bengals practice squad last year, so he's picked things up. I'd say he's ahead of a rookie type of player, so he has some experience there," Belichick said. "He's got some skills and he's done a good job with what we've asked him to do. He works hard and he's been a dependable guy."
At 6-foot-7 and 266 pounds, size is the first thing that jumps out about Lengel. When he was coming out of Eastern Kentucky in 2015, his NFL.com draft profile noted that he was a "tall target with massive catch radius. Well-proportioned and unusual athleticism and coordination for his size. Releases quickly and is fluid in space."
Here's what he looks like in pads:
His weaknesses, however, were well-documented, as he missed the entirety of the 2013 and 2014 seasons due to knee injuries. Those injuries came after a promising 2011 campaign, in which he caught 14 passes for 186 yards and a pair of touchdowns in eight games played.
In his bio on the Bengals' website, the team praised Lengel, "who battled through exceptionally tough injury problems in college" and "made rare injury comeback in '14 after ACL tears in same knee (right) in both '12 and '13."
All told, in his final two collegiate seasons (2011, 2014), he played in 16 games, catching 30 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns. The NFL presents a degree of competition that's a notch or two higher than that of the Ohio Valley Conference, but the moderate production shows that Lengel might at least be able to haul in a catch or two from Tom Brady.
As for whether Lengel might be more of a blocking or receiving tight end, Belichick shared no secrets on Friday.
"Yeah, we'll see," Belichick said. "We only have tape from so many games, so I don't know if you could really categorize that. So we'll see."
Lengel has gotten his feet wet in NFL preseason action, catching five passes for 48 yards in four games played for Cincinnati this past summer. That included a 21-yard reception vs. Minnesota.
For Lengel, his football career has been a test in patience. It began when he enrolled at Northeastern University, only to have the school scrap its football program altogether while he sat as a redshirt freshman. It extended with the two missed years at Eastern Kentucky, and has continued through his first two seasons in the NFL.
He's waited a long time for his chance, and the injury to Gronkowski combined with the thin depth chart at the position means he very well could be getting that chance sooner than later with the Patriots. And he just might find himself being the 64th player to ever catch a pass from Brady.
While No. 82 will never be mistaken for No. 87, getting production out of previously unknown players has always been a strength of the head coach.
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