Patriots' contingency plans at tight end

The New England Patriots have a lot of issues this offseason at tight end. Pro Bowler Rob Gronkowski recently had back and arm surgery and is questionable for Week 1, and teammate Aaron Hernandez is being investigated in a homicide probe.

The tight end position is very important to quarterback Tom Brady and New England's offense. So what are the Patriots’ contingency plans if Gronkowski and/or Hernandez miss the start of the season?

Let’s examine.

Option No. 1: Lean on Jake Ballard

Analysis: Ballard was a solid tight end for the New York Giants during their Super Bowl run in 2011. The Patriots picked up Ballard off waivers last year, despite a serious knee injury that kept him out all last season. Now, that pickup is looking smart with Gronkowski and Hernandez both having issues heading into this season. Ballard is a solid option with starting experience. He should be able to fill in for Gronkowski or Hernandez in the short term. But what happens if both starters aren't available for Week 1? That is when New England would have to explore further options listed below.

Option No. 2: Try to develop Tim Tebow

Analysis: The Patriots have been mum on their plans for Tebow. New England signed the popular quarterback to a two-year contract earlier this month and created plenty of national headlines. Initial reports indicated Tebow will only play quarterback. But he will have a better chance of making New England’s 53-man roster. If Gronkowski's health is still an issue later this summer and things continue to go downhill for Hernandez with his legal woes, don't be surprised if New England experiments with Tebow at tight end. Tebow played a little H-back for the New York Jets last season. He has some athleticism, size and physicality for the position. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick loves versatile players, and Tebow could learn multiple positions in training camp.

Option No. 3: Sign a free agent

Analysis: There isn’t much available in free agency this time of year, but New England does have a few options at tight end if the team feels the need to add another player. The best free-agent option at this stage is probably Dallas Clark. New England showed some interest in the former Pro Bowler last year when Clark became available, because his skills fit offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' scheme. But Clark is aging, has injury concerns and would be just a band aid to a bigger problem.