When the New England Patriots lost All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski to an ACL and MCL tear in their Week 14 game against the Cleveland Browns, as reported by NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, it simply reinforced a simple fact. The Patriots need to bolster the tight end position this offseason.
2012 v. 2013
In 2012, despite missing Gronkowski for six games and former tight end Aaron Hernandez for five, quarterback Tom Brady completed 116 passes to tight ends for 1,479 yards and 16 touchdowns, nearly half of his season total of 34.
Through 13 games this season, Brady has just 51 completions to his tight ends, for 722 yards and just five of Brady's 21 touchdowns.
Moreover, the Patriots have had to move away from the two-TE sets they used to such devastating effect over the previous seasons. Even with the injuries to Gronkowski and Hernandez, the Patriots ran two-TE sets about 50 percent of the time, according to Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com; in 2013, that number has dropped to about 25 percent.
The two-TE set is so important because of the tendency toward having more defensive backs on the field. A two-TE set, especially one in which both tight ends are good pass-catchers, creates mismatches in both the passing game and the running game. The Patriots exploited both in 2012, as they led the league with 25 rushing touchdowns.
Who's on the roster for 2014
Who do the Patriots have under contract for 2014 at tight end?
They currently have three other tight ends on the roster. Two of them—Matthew Mulligan and Michael Hoomanawanui—will be unrestricted free agents when the season ends. The third, D.J. Williams, who was resigned by the Patriots when they placed Gronkowski on injured reserve, would be either a restricted or exclusive-rights free agent.
The Patriots will likely bring back Hoomanawanui and Mulligan to compete for roster spots, since neither should break the bank (according to PatsCap.com, together they account for about $1.2 million on the salary cap). But that's the status quo, not improvement.
What the Patriots can do
The Patriots do not have an extraordinary amount of free cap room; according to Spotrac.com, they have about $5 million in cap space remaining for this season, and have $123 million in cap space allocated for 51 players in 2014. Given that the Patriots' first priorities will likely be retaining or extending their own players (including cornerback Aqib Talib, safety Devin McCourty, and wide receiver Julian Edelman), it's unlikely they'll be able to go after any high-profile free agents at the tight end position, such as the Baltimore Ravens' Dennis Pitta or the New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham.
On the other hand, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Patriots make a small-money deal on a mid-tier free agent, similar to the three-year, $5 million deal they gave Daniel Fells in 2012.
It's more likely the Pats will choose to address the position through the draft. The main question is when, and how often.
There isn't any player as complete as Gronkowski available in this draft, but the Patriots could certainly get a player to restore some of the flexibility they lost after they released Aaron Hernandez.
According to CBSSports.com, three tight ends—Texas Tech's Jace Amaro, North Carolina's Eric Ebron, and Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins—have first-round grades. Amaro is the most complete of the three, while Ebron and Seferian-Jenkins are more in the Hernandez mold. They probably won't all be available when the Patriots pick, and Amaro and Seferian-Jenkins have yet to declare. If all three declare, though, at least one should be available for the Patriots.
Later on in the draft, there are a number of players who could contribute in both the passing game and the running game, such as C.J. Fiedorowicz at Iowa (where former Patriots tight end coach Brian Ferentz now works), Georgia's Arthur Lynch and UMass's Rob Blanchflower. All of these players should be available on day two, or early on day three of the 2014 draft.
It's likely the Pats will either take one of the top three tight ends (assuming they all declare), or double dip later in the draft. Expect the Patriots to have at least five tight ends in training camp next offseason.