With Patriots training camp set to open on July 24, CBSBostonSports.com will provide a positional breakdown at each spot on offense and defense. Today's breakdown is at tight end.
Position: Tight End
Major Players: Rob Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui
On The Bubble: D.J. Williams, Asa Watson, Justin Jones, Nate Byham
We could go on and on, breaking down each of the six tight ends currently on the New England roster (and trust us, we will in a few minutes), but we all know it really comes down to just one thing: The health of Rob Gronkowski.
Gronk is once again recovering from off-season surgery, though it's nothing like his surgery-filled off-season of 2013. This time around he's on the mend from that vicious T.J. Ward hit that tore his ACL on December 8 against Cleveland, and so far, it doesn't sound like setbacks will keep him out of action for the upcoming season.
"I'm planning on playing the whole season this year," Gronkowski told reporters last week during his football clinic for women in Medfield, MA.
You can tell Gronkowski is pretty anxious to get back to catching the football, especially after being limited to just four celebratory spikes last season.
Gronk underwent surgery on his knee in early January, and his optimism this summer is a far cry from his recovery last off-season, when he underwent a handful of surgeries to repair his twice-broken forearm and a lingering back ailment. It was unclear when Gronk would be able to suit up throughout the season's opening months last year, and he didn't hit the field until Week 7. Just a few weeks later, he was back on the injury list and Tom Brady was once again without his favorite target.
Just how important is Gronk to the New England passing game? Everyone knows the big man makes life easier on everyone, from the receivers who benefit from the double-teams Gronk sees to the running backs he throws his huge frame around to block for.
But no one benefits more than the man throwing him the football. From 2010-12, 33.5 percent of Brady's completions and 34.9 percent of his passing yards went to tight ends as Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez formed one of the best tight end duos the game had to offer. But in 2013, with Gronk on the shelf for the majority of the year and Hernandez in a prison cell, just 13.9 percent of Brady's passes went to tight ends, who accounted for just 17.1 percent of his passing yards.
With Gronkowski on the field, the Patriots offense, even with their relative lack of depth at wide receiver, is still among the best in the NFL. Without Gronk it's just a slightly above-average offense, mainly because Tom Brady is throwing the passes.
Luckily all signs point to Gronk playing in Week 1, and he's hopeful he'll play in all 16 regular season games (and a few playoff games) for the first time since his record-setting 2012 season. The Patriots better hope that's the case, because the depth behind Gronk is not very impressive.
Michael Hoomanawanui is back for another season in New England, which will be his third with the team. Hooman is a solid backup who can catch some passes and does his job as a run-blocker, but if Gronk were to miss more significant time, we're likely looking at a repeat of 2013 when it comes to tight end production (and this time without Matthew Mulligan and his wrestling title belts).
Behind Hooman on the depth chart is D.J. Williams, undrafted free agents Asa Watson and Justin Jones, and recently signed Nate Byham. Williams played in two games in 2013 after joining the Patriots late in the season, and may find himself on the roster just for depth purposes. Watson (younger brother to former Patriots' tight end Benjamin Watson) and Jones are both practice squad candidates, though Jones is intriguing given his size at 6-8 and 275-pounds. Byham, who has four years of NFL experience, could battle Williams for a depth spot. However, like Gronk, the 26-year-old Byham is recovering from a torn ACL he suffered last season.
As you can see, after Gronk, the Patriots are once again a little thin at the tight end position. That could be a problem if Gronkowski needs some extra time to start the year, or if he goes down with another injury at some point during the season.
With a healthy Gronkowski, the Patriots offense will be among the best in the NFL. But the year-long question mark regarding his health will hover over the team, with just one reasonable replacement behind him on the depth chart.
The Patriots didn't address the tight end position in the draft or on the free agent market, so they must feel pretty confident that Gronkowski won't just return to the field, but continue to run over opposing defenses as he finds his way to the end zone a dozen or so times this season.
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