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Since taking over as New England's starting signalcaller in 2001, QB Tom Brady has helped transform the Patriots into one of the most successful franchises in the sport.
New England won three Super Bowls from 2001-04, and under the guidance of head coach Bill Belichick, appeared well on their way to becoming one of the most dominant dynasties in NFL history.
But following the '04 campaign, things began to change.
After picking up his third ring, WR David Patten joined the Redskins in '05. His departure was followed by that of WRs David Givens and Deion Branch and TE Christian Fauria the next year. By the '07 season, TE Daniel Graham and FB Patrick Pass were gone, and WR Troy Brown played in just one game.
Sure, the Pats went on to an undefeated regular season that year and have been perennial playoff contenders ever since, but winning the big game hasn't come quite as easy.
Brady's veteran targets were replaced by the likes of WRs Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Jabar Gaffney and TE Ben Watson. While that group may have added some gaudy numbers to their résumés, the Patriots' name has been left off the Lombardi Trophy during their tenure.
But there was a clear changing of the guard in 2010.
Watson's six-year stint in New England came to an end when he signed a three-year deal with the Browns in the offseason, and Moss was shipped to Minnesota four games into the season.
The Patriots didn't skip a beat after trading Moss, replacing him by bringing back Branch, a familiar name from the Super Bowl days. With Moss gone, Welker and Branch became the top two wideouts in New England, but their success was only part of what allowed Brady to have one of the most accurate seasons in NFL history. He got a lot of help from a couple of new weapons.
Rookie TEs Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski proved to be dependable targets in New England all season long. Despite splitting time, both finished the regular season ranked in the top six in receiving yards among rookies, finishing the season with more combined touchdown receptions than any other rookie duo.
Hernandez — who finished the regular season with 45 catches for 563 yards and six TDs — led the way with his athletic ability, becoming the only rookie tight end to reel in multiple catches of 40-plus yards, while Gronkowski established himself as a well-rounded tight end with a knack for catching the ball in the endzone as he completed his first pro season with 42-546-10.
Both played large roles as the Patriots finished the season with an NFL-best 14-2 record, re-establishing the importance of the tight end position in New England.
Falling into place
Both Gronkowski and Hernandez were considered among the most talented tight ends in the 2010 draft, but neither came off the board in the first round.
Gronkowski, who was selected with the tenth pick in the second round (42nd overall), showed how talented he was in his two-year playing career at Arizona. After posting 47-672-10 in '08 and being named a third-team All-American by the Associated Press, Gronkowski had already become the school's career and single-season receiving leader among tight ends. But back surgery kept him out for the entire '09 season, his junior year, causing him to drop out of the first round.
Hernandez had no problems putting up numbers at Florida in '09, as the John Mackey Award winner turned in a 68-850-5 season before declaring for the draft following his junior year.
It was off-the-field issues that got the former Gator in trouble. Hernandez admitted to failing a drug test during his time in Gainesville, sending his draft stock plummeting — he wasn't selected until the fourth round.
"At the time, yeah it mattered, because it's a dream to be a first-rounder and be the first tight end taken," Hernandez told PFW. "But your whole goal is to get to this professional level. I feel blessed just to be drafted. Once you get to the team, that's when it matters and that's when you've got to prove yourself. I just love the game of football, so just being here today is a dream come true."
Hernandez and Gronkowski had become friends during the NFL Combine, but neither expected that the two would become teammates. When it happened, it didn't take long for that bond to continue to grow.
"When we were learning the playbook we were studying together, getting things down together and just helping each other with the routes," Gronkowski said. "We push each other in the weight room, on the field, all the time. I have fun working with him. It's a pleasure to have him on the team."
The rookies weren't the only members of the team that had learning to do.
Veteran TE Alge Crumpler had just arrived in New England after spending the previous two seasons with the Titans. Although the 33-year-old had plenty of NFL experience, Crumpler was faced with revamping his playing style, as his days as a dangerous receiving threat were coming to an end.
As the three tight ends began working together, Crumpler became a mentor-type for the rookies.
"I love working with those guys," Crumpler said. "They're both two young, gifted tight ends. They keep our locker room full of energy. They've grown so much since the first day they've been here. I just really enjoy playing with them."
It didn't take long for either rookie to leave a lasting impression.
On the Patriots' third offensive play of the season, Brady found Hernandez on a short pass to the left side of the field. Hernandez caught the ball and ran 45 yards before finally being brought down on his first career reception.
Not much else was heard from the Patriots' tight end position until the fourth quarter. With just 7:41 remaining in the game, Gronkowski's first pro catch went for a one-yard score, giving "Gronk" his first of a Patriots rookie record 10 TD catches.
The rookies' strong play forced Belichick to begin throwing to the tight ends more than he ever had in the past. The combined receiving totals of Gronkowski and Hernandez topped the production of Watson's last three seasons combined in New England.
The lack of targets toward the position in the past could have been viewed as a negative by the new group of tight ends, but Gronkowski said they never looked at it as an obstacle.
"We really don't look at trends," he said. "We really don't look at anything in the past. We look to the future now. We control our own roles as tight ends. We're just out there as a tight ends group; everyone is working hard every single day. ... We control our own role by what we do."
While both rookies were effective in their first seasons in New England, it wasn't until the second half of the year that they really turned it on. Seven games in, Hernandez was still without a touchdown, and Gronkowski had accumulated just 101 receiving yards.
Halfway through the season, Pats tight ends coach Brian Ferentz said he expected more production from his rookies.
"Offensively, we're pleased to some extent with the maturation of our young guys," he said. "As always, we expect improvement every week, and certainly this isn't an easy place to play. We demand a lot of all our players, whether they're young or old. I think just as a collective staff, and with all the young guys, we're pleased with the progress, but certainly we're going to expect a lot more out of them down the stretch."
They both answered the call. Hernandez caught six touchdown passes from Week Nine on, even though he missed the final two games with a hip injury. Gronkowski piled up 32-445-7 in the season's final nine games.
Things didn't pan out as expected for New England in the postseason, as the Patriots fell 28-21 to the Jets in the divisional round. But what did come from the game is this: Brady targeted his tight ends 12 times, completing eight passes. When was the last time Brady connected eight or more times with his tight ends in a playoff game? Jan. 19, 2002, the Pats' first postseason win of the Belichick-Brady era.
If the Patriots were looking for a position of strength on offense, they likely found one in their new tight ends.
They recorded more receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns than any other group under Belichick and accounted for half of Brady's touchdown throws in 2010.
"We're really close, closer than I've been with any tight end grouping that I've ever been with," Hernandez said. "Me and Gronkowski met at the Combine and became good friends there and then we come here and actually being able to play together, work together, compete together; we have a real special bond between our tight ends."
When the Patriots won their first Super Bowl following the '01 season, they didn't do it with a lot of big-name, flashy players. TE Jermaine Wiggins was in just his second year with the team, Troy Brown was in his ninth and Patten his fifth.
That team won't be far off from what New England will have to offer in 2011. Both Hernandez and Gronkowski will have a year under their belts; Welker will be entering his fifth season with the team, Branch his sixth.
While no one knows exactly what the future holds for the Patriots, Hernandez said a return to New England's glory days would be the ultimate goal.
"Only time will tell," he said. "All we can do is keep working forward and hope for the best. All I want to do is keep winning and get to the big games, and hopefully make it to the big dance."