Opportunity knocks for Patriots tight ends

Opportunity knocks for Patriots tight ends
July 28, 2013, 10:30 am
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FOXBORO -- When Rob Gronkowski strolled to the sidelines of the Patriots practice fields about halfway through Saturday's training camp session wearing shorts and a t-shirt, he was a 6-foot-6, 265-pound reminder that the Patriots tight end position was in a state of flux.

A spectator for the morning, Gronkowski stood idle as tight ends Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui, Jake Ballard and undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld took snaps with quarterback Tom Brady.

This wasn't how it was supposed to go.

At this time last year, the Patriots were beginning to unveil an offense that would prominently feature both Gronkowski and fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez.

But now Gronkowski is on the physically unable to perform list as he recovers from offseason back surgery. Hernandez was released by the Patriots last month after being arrested in relation to the murder of semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd. Hernandez has since been charged with first degree murder and remains in jail.  

Now with six tight ends on the roster -- Brandon Ford was also brought on as an undrafted rookie free agent -- others have a chance to step in and contribute. Though they won't be expected to perform like a healthy Gronkowski, they will have an opportunity to carve out critical roles in the Patriots offense.

"As always, unfortunately when the players that are on your team can’t perform, it gives more opportunities to somebody else, wherever that is," Belichick said. "Then what those people can do with that opportunity -- sometimes it comes at different levels, but we’ve all seen it -- people take advantage of those opportunities."

Fells is the most experienced of the bunch. Now in his sixth season, he's starting his second training camp with the Patriots. He played in a reserve roll last season and was used mostly as a blocker (he had 4 receptions for 85 yards in 13 games), but he knows that there is a chance to compete for a more significant role.

"I'm a competitor," said Fells, who's 29. "I want to go out there and compete and I wish I could've gone out there and participate a little bit more. But, ultimately, they're going to put on the field whoever they see fit so I gotta show them I'm fit enough to do it."

He added, "Being in the system for a year now, I feel a little bit more experienced -- especially with the two rookies coming in. I can kind of show them the ropes and help them out a little bit.”
 
Sudfeld has been the rookie tight end who has drawn the most attention since rookie minicamp in the spring. At 6-7, 260 pounds -- and with a mess of long brown hair flowing out of his helmet -- he stands out. His physical attributes make him a candidate to be a a tight end who can be both a threat in the passing game as well as block.

"I think that no matter what, my mentality coming in was just to go out and compete and do my best, regardless of what happens with any other situations," Sudfeld said. "So I feel very fortunate to just have an opportunity to be here with the Patriots organization and play."

Ballard is still recovering from microfracture knee surgery last year. He admitted he may never feel the way he did before tearing his ACL in Super Bowl XLVI against the Patriots, but he insisted that he feels better than he did during organized team activities.

"It feels great just to be back to football and not in a rehab room or a weight room somewhere," Ballard said. "Out here being around the guys, it's pretty awesome."
 
Ballard is still getting accustomed to being on the field after missing all of last season, but he considers himself in the running to be a factor at tight end for the Patriots this season.

"I feel like every training camp is an opportunity for guys," he said. "I'm not really sure about other guys situations, all I know is I feel like I have a pretty good opportunity, I just need to come in here and perform and I'll get a fair shot as long as I pull my own weight and do what I'm supposed to do."

Between Hoomanawanui -- who saw significant work at tight end when Hernandez and Gronkowski went down with injuries last season -- Ballard and Fells, they have 155 career catches for 2028 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Gronkowski alone has 187 catches for 2663 yards and 38 touchdowns in his career.

Belichick said he didn't expect there to be a Lou Gherig-Wally Pipp situation in training camp -- Pipp was the Yankees starting first baseman until a young Gherig replaced him and became one of the greatest players in Yankees history -- but he had confidence his tight end group could be productive despite missing its biggest star.

Belichick singled out Hoomanawanui and Sudfeld for their effort early on.

"They’ve worked hard, they’ve certainly taken advantage of the reps that they’ve gotten and they’ve definitely gotten more because some of the players that would normally be at the position weren’t participating," Belichick said. "That’s good for them. I don’t want to say this is Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig, but that’s the classic story.

"We’ve all gotten opportunities because of one reason or another, of something that happened to somebody who was in front of us and being able to take advantage of those opportunities is . . . it’s there if they can do it."