5 Reasons TE Is the Most Important Position in the New England Patriots' Offense

Oliver Thomas@OliverBThomasContributor IJuly 30, 2012

5 Reasons TE Is the Most Important Position in the New England Patriots' Offense

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    If quarterback Tom Brady is the brain of the New England Patriots' offense, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are the heart and soul.

    The two-headed monster has been a sure thing for the Patriots since both men arrived as rookies in 2010. Their rare athleticism has established a high-octane offense in New England, and defenses have suffered because of it.

    Other roles carry more glamor, but blocking receivers are nothing to sneeze at. The Pats are reinventing a position once reserved for undersized offensive linemen.

    Here are five reasons why the tight end position is vital for the Patriots.

New England's Tight End Production Speaks for Itself

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    The numbers don't lie. New England's two-tight end set has amassed some staggering numbers over the last two seasons.

    As newcomers in 2010, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez totaled 87 receptions for 1,109 yards and 16 touchdowns.

    The 2011 campaign put those previous stats to shame, as the dynamic duo racked up 169 catches for 2,237 yards and 24 scores.

    Gronkowski's 17 receiving TDs last season are the most for a tight end in NFL history, per Pro-Football-Reference. On top of that, his 1,327 receiving yards in 2011 are a new high-water mark for tight ends, cites ESPNBoston.com.

    Hernandez's output may not be as off-the-charts, but he's a versatile H-back with speed to burn. If he didn't miss out on two regular-season games last year, the former fourth-round draft pick would have eclipsed 80 catches and 1,000 yards.

    According to NFL.com, both men were top-five tight ends last year, and their contributions have inspired other teams to implement a dual-tight end set.

A Coverage Nightmare

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    Defensive personnel is dictated by the offense when two tight ends are in the huddle.

    Does the opposing defensive coordinator opt for an extra defensive back? Or does the coach stick with three or four linebackers?

    Either way, the coverage is left vulnerable.

    If the defense guards the tight ends with linebackers, speed is sacrificed for size. If the defense guards the tight ends with defensive backs, size is sacrificed for speed.

    Against the 6'6", 265-pound Rob Gronkowski, linebackers don't have the lateral movement, or the coverage skills to prevent a reception. On the same token, no cornerback's agility can make up for a significant height disadvantage.

    Against the 6'2", 250-pound Aaron Hernandez, linebackers are of similar size but struggle to stay in stride with the ex-Florida Gator. At his college pro day two years ago, Hernandez ran a 4.58 40-yard dash, courtesy of Walterfootball.com. Most cornerbacks run a similar 40-time, which gives the flex receiver a slight edge. He's tough to locate as he lines up in the backfield, on the line or in the slot.

    Thus far, no clear-cut answer has been devised to stop New England's tight ends. There's no reason to believe 2012 will be any different.

Tight Ends Disguise the Ground Game

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    Not so long ago, defenses loaded the box when an extra tight end was subbed into the game.

    That is no longer the case.

    When the Patriots have two tight ends on the field, defenses may expect a pass play. At this juncture, the Patriots' running backs have holes to run through.

    In June, NFL.com's Bucky Brooks broke the mismatch down:

    Offensive coordinators are also incorporating more "Tight-Wing" formations with both tight ends aligned on the same side to create an advantage in the running game. By aligning two tight ends on same side in a tight alignment, the defense is vulnerable on the edge (tight side) due to a potential double team by the ends on the outside force player.

    If the defense assumes a run, New England may end up passing the ball. Yet it just leaves another variable in the equation to torment the opposition.

    With two viable tight ends in their arsenal, it's nearly impossible to guess what the Patriots are scheming on any given play.

    It also doesn't hurt that among tight ends, Rob Gronkowski posted the second-best run-blocking grade in 2011, per ProFootballFocus.com.

Dangerous in the Red Zone

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    The red zone is where Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez really get to work.

    In 2011, the two safety valves were targeted with 50.5 percent of Tom Brady's pass attempts inside the 20-yard line, via CBSSports.com.

    With those throws, the two combined for 30 catches, 260 yards and 18 touchdowns. Not to mention Gronkowski padded those numbers with a two-yard running score.

    The Patriots scored touchdowns during 65.06 percent of their red-zone opportunities last season largely due to their tight ends. That efficiency secured New England the fourth-best red-zone percentage in the league, according to TeamRankings.com.

    When there's less real estate to play with, keeping drives alive is critical. The Patriots have been able to accomplish exactly that.

The Surest Hands Around

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    The No. 1 priority for a receiver is to catch the ball. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez don't disappoint.

    According to FootballOutsiders.com, throws to Gronkowski were completed 73 percent of the time last season. Hernandez was not far behind with a 70 percent catch rate.

    In contrast, New England's most sure-handed wide receiver Wes Welker ended 2011 at 71 percent. Trailing further down the list is Deion Branch's mere 57 percent.

    When the game is on the line, the Patriots offense turns to the most steady hands. Gronkowski and Hernandez are not afraid to answer the call.