As a New England Patriots rookie, ILB Brandon Spikes chose number 55 in honor of two players that wore it before him: LB Junior Seau and DE/LB Willie McGinest. For Spikes, wearing the same number inspires him to be great like Seau and McGinest.
It might just be coincidence, but the rookie tight ends wear numbers of past New England greats at their position. The Patriots hope Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez can play as well as the players that made numbers 87 and 85 memorable.
During the mid to late 1990’s, Ben Coates was arguably the best tight end in the league. He was QB Drew Bledsoe’s favorite target, and why not? What quarterback could miss a hulking 6'5" 245-pound nightmare with soft hands and unbelievable strength?
Ben Coates was the total package coaches dream of. The record and tackle-breaking Coates was impossible to cover or tackle one-on-one. Coates was a solid blocker as well.
Simply put, Coates was an unstoppable force. With five Pro Bowl selections and two All-Pro honors, it’s no surprise Coates was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2008.
Gronkowski is a long way from being worthy of any hall of honor, but he could fill the cavernous shoes left behind by Coates. At 6'6", 263, Gronkowski is actually bigger than Coates. But it’s Gronk’s play that shows hints of Big Ben.
In preseason game two, twice Gronkowski used his body to shield the incoming ball from the defender to make a catch. What really caught the eye was how Gronkowski fought for yards after the catch. On each short reception, it took a handful of defenders to bring Gronkowski down, but not after he wrestled his way for an additional yard or two.
The play that Gronkowski will remember though is his 24-yard touchdown. Lined up in the slot, Gronkowski got a clean release and ran past the linebacker. Gronkowski easily made the catch over the defender as he hopped across the goal line.
Gronkowski has the tools to be an every down player, but his blocking needs refinement. If Gronk wants tips on how to improve as a player, all he has to do is make a visit to the Patriots Hall of Fame and watch a few Coates videos.
Hernandez has to look a little deeper to find his mentor. Despite playing on some bad New England teams, Marv Cook caught the league’s attention. It was a short three year run for Cook, but from 1990-1992, Cook was one of the few highlights on the Pats.
The former 1989 third round pick out of Iowa was undersized by today’s standard, tipping the scales at just 234 pounds. Not that it mattered to Cook, as he was able to separate from defenders to get open. In those three years, Cook had at least 51 receptions, was selected to two Pro Bowls, and was an All-Pro in 1991 with 82 receptions for 808 yards.
The Patriots hope Aaron emulates Cook, but gets up to speed quicker than Cook did (three receptions by Cook in his rookie year). If the preseason is an accurate projection for the fourth round pick out of Florida, that won’t be the case for Hernandez.
Aaron has lined up across the field, mostly as a receiver. He looks like one with surprising run after the catch ability. Hernandez has great feet, good for when he needs quickness to juke past defenders, or to drag his toes inbounds on touchdown receptions.
On a four yard score, QB Tom Brady intentionally threw the ball at Hernandez’s back shoulder. Aaron’s body control enabled him to twist back and catch the pass. Hernandez kept his feet inbounds while falling out of bounds. That’s surprising control from a 6'1" 245-pounder.
To help Hernandez and Gronkowski reach full potential, Alge Crumpler is around to mentor the rookies. The 10-year veteran will be an example for Aaron and Rob. Crumpler will give advice, share secrets, and show techniques to make them better. He will be a teacher Gronkowski and Hernandez will really benefit from. With four Pro Bowls to his credit, the Patriots couldn’t find a better leader for the rookies than Crumpler.
Gronkowski and Hernandez have a high standard to reach for in New England. Whenever they need inspiration, all Rob and Aaron have to do is look at the number on their chest.
Randolph Charlotin writes a New England Patriots blog at www.randolphc.com.
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