Breaking Down the New England Patriots' Options at Tight End
Justin Jones and Asa Watson—two undrafted free-agent tight ends—got one chance to impress Bill Belichick. As evidenced by their eventual release, reported by Ben Volin of The Boston Globe, Belichick wasn't impressed.
At this point in his—and Tom Brady's—career, he is not a patient man. Don't ask the same question two ways expecting a different response. Don't ask about injuries. Lastly, don't disappear when the lights are the brightest. The one combined target for Jones and Watson, combined with their poor blocking effort, sealed their fate.
Belichick replaced Watson and Jones with two veterans—Ben Hartsock and Steve Maneri—and another undrafted rookie in Terrence Miller.
Let's take a look at the tight end depth chart and the chances of each player making the team.
Not only has Rob Gronkowski returned to practice, he took his first reps in team drills (seven-on-seven) on Monday, according to Mike Reiss of ESPN.com. While he still wore a red no-contact jersey, seeing him play in more of a game-like situation is encouraging.
A healthy Gronkowski changes the equation for the New England Patriots on offense. Defenses can substitute into their nickel package against him, but his blocking allows offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to call run play after run play. If the defense stays in base, McDaniels will go airborne. It is truly a "pick your poison" situation.
While the rest of the tight end roster is in a bit of turmoil, Gronkowski will be looked upon to be the rock this year.
Status: roster lock
While Gronkowski is slowly upping his number of repetitions, Michael Hoomanawanui is still working on getting back onto the field, according to Adam Kurkjian of the The Boston Herald.
Hoomanawanui isn't the most gifted tight end athletically, but he knows how to execute the job he is given. He is an adequate blocker and will surprise occasionally in the passing game with an extraordinary catch or big gain.
His 70 percent catch rate and 11.3 yards per catch put him in the top half of tight ends overall, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Unless his lingering injury causes him to be placed on injured reserve, there is no doubt that we will hear announcers struggling with Hoomanawanui's name in 2014.
Status: roster lock
Who was the No. 1 tight end in the league, according to Pro Football Focus? Not Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas, Brent Celek or Jordan Cameron. That honor goes to the newly signed Ben Hartsock.
On 324 snaps, Hartsock accumulated an astounding zero targets in the passing game, but he was given a plus-17.0 rating in the blocking department by Pro Football Focus. Think Kyle Brady 2.0 for the New England Patriots.
Hartsock won't make much of an impact in the passing game, but his ability to contribute in jumbo personnel situations could help him make the team.
Status: 35 percent chance of making roster
After totaling a disappointing 15 snaps with the New England Patriots in 2013, D.J. Williams had high hopes going into the 2014 season. An injury has stemmed his progress over the last week, but he seems determined to make the team.
Rich Garven of the Worcester Telegram talked with Williams about playing for the New England Patriots:
The 6-foot-2, 255-pound Williams has the ability to be a flex tight end, lining up inside or outside. That type of player has been missing around here since Aaron Hernandez has been incarcerated.
And Williams, of course, is looking to settle down and experience success with one team.
He refused to say his natural skill set is a better fit for this offense than the ones in Green Bay and Jacksonville — remember, no pointing fingers — only that he's enamored with coordinator Josh McDaniels' approach to dissecting defenses.
"I feel like since we're professional athletes, it's our job to fit into whatever situation that we're placed in," Williams said. "Some may fit better than others, but I started to learn you really can't control the hand that's dealt, you can just control how well you play.
"I'm here now, I really love the system, and I'm going to do my best to make sure I can be as productive as I can, not for myself but just for the team."
Williams will have to show that his versatility and pass-catching ability are worth keeping over the blocking ability of Hartsock in order to make the 53-man roster.
Status: 35 percent chance of making roster
This isn't Maneri's first time as a New England Patriot, having spent time on the 53-man roster back in 2010. Maneri is a little lighter this time around, showing up as a tight end on the roster instead of an offensive tackle.
In between his stints in Foxborough, Maneri spent time with the Kansas City Chiefs, Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Entering his fifth season in the league, Maneri has totaled six receptions for a whopping 52 yards.
Maneri offers some skill as a blocker, but it isn't close to the same level as that of Hartsock. Maneri should be considered a camp body at this point in the process.
Status: five percent chance of making roster
Failing to stick on the thin New York Jets roster isn't something that you would typically put on your resume. However, the versatility he offers can allow one to overlook that fact.
What Bill Belichick sees is a player who lined up as an outside receiver, slot receiver and tight end in college and could add H-back and fullback duties in the NFL. If James Develin should get injured, having a replacement in camp—that would have been Watson before his release—is a must.
While Miller might not do anything at a high level, he'll need to do a lot of things at a decent level to make the 53-man roster or practice squad.
Status: practice squad hopeful barring injuries
Free Agent Options
If the new signings, Hartsock, Maneri and Miller, don't work out, Bill Belichick may look to the free-agent ranks to fill out the tight end depth chart.
Two options that the New England Patriots have been in contact with this offseason are Dustin Keller—former New York Jet and Miami Dolphin—and Jermichael Finley. Finley and Keller are both "Move" tight ends who excel in the passing game. Unfortunately, they are also coming off of major injuries. Keller's knee and Finley's neck were potentially career-threatening injuries.
If Belichick becomes desperate enough, he may take a slightly hobbled veteran to fill a void.
Status: 25 percent chance of signing Keller/Finley