This is the fourth in a series of position-by-position looks at the Patriots' personnel entering the 2011 offseason. Today, we analyze New England's tight end position.
Overview: After five seasons of solid contributions from TE Ben Watson, the team decided to part ways with him and revamp the position, making it a bigger focal point in the offense. The Pats drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and signed veteran Alge Crumpler, putting together one of the best tight end units in the league. The three combined for 1,161 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns.
The triumvirate provided quite the combination. Crumpler was the best run blocker, Hernandez was great in between the 20s and Gronkowski was a stellar red-zone threat.
Here's a breakdown of each of the tight ends on the roster:
Alge Crumpler: The veteran spent several of his nine previous seasons as a pass-catching tight end, having three seasons with more than 770 receiving yards in Atlanta. But with the athletic rookies on the roster, Crumpler happily took up the role as a blocker, being the team's de facto fullback and captain. He was considered a big reason for the Patriots' success in the ground game. Crumpler finished with two touchdown catches along with career-lows in receptions and yards.
Rob Gronkowski: "Gronk" got off to a slow start, appearing to be solely a red-zone threat. But a big game at Pittsburgh in Week 10 when he had 5-72-3 receiving in a 39-26 victory helped Gronkowski see more targets on offense. He also is a better run blocker than Hernandez, as he saw some of the most snaps on the offensive side of the ball. He finished the season with 42-546-10 receiving. His 10 scores were second among rookies.
Aaron Hernandez: The athletic Hernandez, who often played out of the slot, saw his numbers go in an opposite direction as Gronkowski. Early on, Hernandez looked like he could make a run at being the first tight end ever to win NFL Rookie of the Year honors. But an injured hip slowed Hernandez at the end of the season. He still finished with 45-563-6 receiving, setting the franchise record for receptions by a rookie tight end.
Bottom line: Aside from quarterback, tight end is the Patriots' most solid positional group and the one that will see the least amount of change this offseason. After adding three new faces last summer with great results, the Patriots likely won't sign another tight end. The two rookies have a year under their belt in the offense and added a new dynamic to Tom Brady and the Pats' attack. Expect them to be just as productive in 2011.