FOXBORO – The release of Daniel Fells and Jake Ballard has tentacles that extend in a number of different directions.
The team now has Rob Gronkowski, Zach Sudfeld and Michael Hoomanawanui as tight ends, a modest number for a position the Patriots stocked more deeply in recent seasons. Especially if Gronkowski is unable to play in the first couple of games as he continues coming back from back surgery, entering the season with just a Hooman and a rookie means they’ll have to be heavy elsewhere.
And that’s fullback.
Their use increased this preseason with James Develin. Cutting Ballard and Fells is an indication that there will be more “one tight end, two running back” formationing ("21 personnel," they like to call it). Develin appears to be the choice at fullback after Bartholomew was released Friday, but Hoomanawanui showed last year an ability to be a hybrid fullback/tight end.
Sudfeld is a poor man’s Hernandez, it seems, in terms of being able to line up in the slot, wide, or as a classic tight end who can be motioned into different spots and still be a serviceable blocker at the point of attack.
Releasing Ballard and Fells now does them a favor since both can be evaluated before the market is Saturday when teams make the cut down to 53 players by 6 p.m.
It also is a hint – but not a surety – that Gronkowski could be close enough to return to allow the Patriots to skate a couple of weeks with just the two perceived tight ends, Sudfeld and Hoomanawanui, on the roster.
Fells was due to make $1.25 million this season. Ballard was due to make $485,000. The chance that either player could be re-signed later shouldn’t be ruled out, although there are some tight end-needy teams (Baltimore, for instance) that could jump in on them.
Fells seems a more likely option than Ballard. The former Giants tight end had a physical drop-off since blowing his ACL in the Super Bowl in February 2012. Surgery to repair that and microfracture surgery left him noticeably plodding early in camp. The idea he could be a poor man’s Gronkowski was dashed fairly quickly.
Fells is a smooth pass catcher and competent blocker but he doesn’t uncover much either because of a lack of speed and quickness.