Tight ends coming to forefront for Patriots

Posted Aug. 27, 2010 @ 2:43 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

Updated Aug. 27, 2010 @ 2:45 p.m. ET

After the Patriots released TE Chris Baker in the offseason, the position was left almost bare of experience and talent. But the trio of Alge Crumpler, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski has exceeded expectations and become a bright spot in the preseason. More than that, they have become an essential element to what the Patriots are trying to run offensively.

The team used several two- and three-TE sets in the win over the Falcons (and almost never went without at least one tight end — a departure from the true “spread” days of 2007), and each man contributed heavily to the effort. Although there were far fewer of these formations in the Patriots’ loss to the Rams, they are expected to be a bread-and-butter staple in some game plans.

Crumpler had a big block on RB Fred Taylor’s 28-yard TD run, and the two rookies — Hernandez and Gronkowski — each had a touchdown reception in the Atlanta game. Crumpler has sung the rookies’ praises, but it’s clear he’s playing more than just a mentor’s role. His diving reception along the sideline against the Rams shows that he’s not just a big, lumbering, one-trick pony at this stage of his career. Expect him to be on the field a good deal in ’10.

It’s hard not to be intrigued by what Hernandez offers in the passing game. Although the blocking element of his game is not considered a refined strength yet, his receiving flexibility is noticeable. He has lined up in two preseason games as an in-line tight end, just off the line in a “flex” spot, and both in the slot and split wide. He also took a snap as a fullback against the Falcons. It has been remarkable to see the 20-year-old being thrown so many responsibilities, and he has responded with some nice grabs. Hernandez sat out the Rams game with a knee injury, but it doesn’t appear serious.

In his place, Gronkowski stood out. He caught his second and third TDs of the preseason in the game, including one where he dragged Rams LB James Laurinaitis five yards into the endzone. Early on in camp, Gronkowski appeared to be a bit of a work in progress. But he put his best foot forward against the Falcons and Rams and appears to be settling into a very big role as a rookie. The team likely will expand his duties even more as times goes on.

 

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