The Patriots' tight end position was once the object of affection for the entire league, but now, it is one of the Patriots' biggest question marks headed into the 2014 season.
They started a trend of teams looking for that perfect one-two punch for their two-tight end formations. The search was on for a big, versatile tight end like Rob Gronkowski and an athletic matchup nightmare like Aaron Hernandez.
For years, the two of them lit up the stat sheet, and subsequently, lit up the NFL.
|Patriots tight end production|
|Year||Receptions||Yards||Y/R||Touchdowns||Red zone TD|
My, how the mighty have fallen.
With Gronkowski's injury rap sheet and Hernandez's alleged criminal rap sheet both growing by the minute, the Patriots may need to pony up some resources to address some lingering concerns at the position.
Backup tight end Michael Hoomanawanui entered the 2013 offseason as the No. 3 tight end on the depth chart but wound up being the starter for 13 games. The Patriots must readdress the backup plan at tight end.
Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
Groupthink is already starting to set in. Many draft experts seem to think the Patriots should target Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro, which can only mean one thing: the Patriots will draft anyone but Amaro.
Jokes aside, when the Patriots look at the 6'5", 260-pound tight end, they'll see a lot of similarities to Hernandez.
He cut his teeth as a receiving tight end in Texas Tech's spread offense, where he spent a lot of time in the slot and wasn't used as a blocker much (much like Hernandez). His size makes him a similar matchup problem, although he doesn't possess the otherworldly athleticism of Hernandez.
Mel Kiper Jr. seems to think Amaro is a good fit for the Patriots and has already been sending Amaro to the Patriots in mock drafts for the past two months or more. Kiper had this to say of slotting Amaro to the Patriots in his latest mock draft (ESPN Insider content):
No change here, but I'll put in a backup plan. I do wonder if Amaro will drop this far. He's a special player with his blend of size, speed and pass-catching ability and he could be gone before this spot. If that's the case, I think another good tight end option could be Troy Niklas of Notre Dame, who has many of the same pass-catching attributes as Amaro and Ebron but is actually more proven as a blocker. Call it Gronk insurance.
It's not a stretch to think of Amaro as the kind of tight end a team could build an offense around. He hauled in 106 passes for 1,352 yards (both led the team) and seven touchdowns (tied for second on the team) as a junior in 2013.
Draft stock is always tricky around this time of year, because the combine and free agency will shape so much of where players are ultimately slotted, but Amaro already looks like a good fit for the Patriots offense.
Scott Chandler, Buffalo Bills
The Patriots are intimately familiar with Scott Chandler, who they've faced twice in each of the past three years, but it almost didn't work out that way in 2013.
There were significant question marks around Chandler's prospects for the 2013 season after he tore his ACL late in 2012. He came back to play a full 16 games for the first time in his career and logged career-highs in receptions (53) and receiving yards (655) as a result.
At 6'7" and 260 pounds, Chandler is nearly a carbon copy of the 6'6", 265-pound Gronkowski. It's easy to picture him helping out in the red zone, despite only logging seven red zone receptions and five red zone touchdowns in the past two years combined.
However, he ranked fourth in 2012 among all tight ends in percentage of receptions that went for either a first down or a touchdown, according to Pro Football Focus, and ranked third in percentage of routes run that resulted in either a first down or touchdown.
|Scott Chandler's role for the Buffalo Bills|
|Year||Snaps||Pass route||Run block||Pass block|
While Chandler possesses a similar frame to Gronkowski, he doesn't have the speed or quickness in and out of breaks exhibited by the Patriots tight end. He's also not as dominant of a blocker, but he has more than enough experience in that role, and his frame will help him wall off defenders in the running game.
Chandler's prospects as a backup to Gronk are similar to Jake Ballard's, without the lingering injury questions.
Dustin Keller, Miami Dolphins
The free-agent market was unkind to tight end Dustin Keller last year. There were questions about his health after missing eight games with injuries to his ankle and hamstring and questions about his overall value due to his niche role as a receiving tight end.
He ended up signing a one-year contract with the Dolphins, but one year later, he's once again a free agent, only this time, the market could be even less kind to him than it was last year.
Keller missed the entire 2013 season with a torn anterior cruciate, medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments in his right knee, resulting from one jarring blow from Texans tight end D.J. Swearinger in the preseason (seen in the video above).
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Keller played 1,307 snaps from 2011-2012, and ran a pass pattern on 715 of those snaps (54.7 percent), so his role is pretty clearly defined as a receiving tight end.
If Keller can return to anywhere close to the player he was before his injuries, he could be a great option as an H-back/"move"/"Joker" tight end in a role similar to Hernandez's—although not as explosive, he's still tough to match up with.
Bill Belichick always has an affinity for players that have given him problems in the past, and Keller had 40 receptions for 509 yards and four touchdowns in 10 career games against the Patriots.
Keller comes with his own set of problems. He could be another in a long line of low-risk, high-reward signings for the Patriots over the years.
He's not a perfect backup to Gronkowski, because he lacks savvy blocking abilities, but if the Patriots want to get back to a two-tight end offense and want to at least have a tight end that can be a dynamic receiver if Gronk goes down, Keller could be an option.
Troy Niklas, Notre Dame
Kiper's backup plan involved Troy Niklas, and it makes sense why. At 6'6" and 270 pounds, Niklas is another Gronkowski clone, physically speaking. His blocking skills are not as refined as Gronk's, but that was also an area Gronkowski had to improve when he entered the league.
Niklas is not the fastest tight end to hit the field, but he can still do his share of damage running seam routes—which has been Gronk's route du jour the past four years. What Niklas lacks in speed, he makes up for with physicality. CBS Sports' Rob Rang gives some great insight on the brand of toughness we can expect from Niklas:
Experience on the defensive side of the ball is shown with his physical nature on the field. Seems to enjoy blocking, rocking opponents with an impressive initial punch and latching on to control throughout the play. Keeps his legs driving through contact. Uses his height and strength to get open against tight coverage, consistently winning the physical battle with opponents to create space.
Good leaping ability, flashing the ability to extend and pluck. Used in a variety of roles for the Irish, including as an inline blocker from both sides, split out wide and even used as an occasional H-back or as a third tackle in pass protection. Secures the football quickly and turns aggressively upfield, dragging would-be tacklers along the way.
In short, Niklas is a versatile, big-bodied, tough tight end with great physical skills who could use some polish on the fundamentals (crisp route-running and diversity of routes). The Patriots may have to develop him, but Niklas could give them exactly what they need if they're looking for a "Gronkowski backup."
Notre Dame has been a hotbed for young, talented tight ends over the years, recently giving us the Vikings' Kyle Rudolph and the Bengals' Tyler Eifert. Neither of them dominated in their rookie year, but Rudolph has developed into one of the more well-rounded tight ends in the game, and Eifert showed a lot of promise as a receiving tight end.
Niklas is closer to Rudolph than he is to Eifert, although as mentioned, his blocking skills need work.
Bill Belichick has forged a strong relationship with Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly; Belichick even acted as a pseudo-consultant for Kelly prior to the 2013 season. Although Belichick has never drafted a player from Notre Dame, he might make an exception with Niklas.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.