The Patriots boast the best set of tight ends in the league, a combination that has produced 16 touchdowns and 1,344 yards so far this season. So why was Tom Brady giving his young tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez a hard time last week during preparation for the Philadelphia Eagles?
"I never think Gronk even knows when I'm getting on him,” Brady said during his weekly interview on Boston sports radio station WEEI when asked about Gronk’s revelation that the QB was needling him. “He looks at me with this blind stare, like, 'What are you talking about?'
“I have a lot of respect for both of those guys. And I am tough on them, because I think there's very high expectations for them both on the practice field, obviously in games, and then in the meeting rooms as well. Everybody has high expectations for those two, because they've proven they can handle it.
“So, when you see certain inconsistencies, you point it out to them. Sometimes they don't want to hear it, but ultimately, I had a lot of older players do that to me when I was a younger player. That's part of being a veteran player, is pointing things out that you need corrected as a team. Because every year that goes on is one less opportunity that you'll have to accomplish the goals you set out. I always say I'll be damned if I let some rookie or second-year player get in the way of our goals."
That hasn’t been the case so far this season for the tandem. In fact, you could make the argument that Gronkowski has emerged as the best tight end in the league. His 11 touchdown receptions are just two short of the NFL record for a tight end in a single season.
Much less consistent has been the No. 3 receiver position, a spot that has been held in large part by Chad Ochocinco but has rotated among several players. While Wes Welker and Deion Branch have combined for 127 receptions on the season, all other receivers on the roster have accounted for just 15.
With Ocho out against the Eagles, many thought this could be Taylor Price’s time to shine. Alas, the second-year player suited up but did not play a single snap. The No. 3 receiver spot was split between Julian Edelman (23 snaps), Tiquan Underwood (19) and Matthew Slater (2).
"Still trying to find our way in the third receiver spot,” Brady acknowledged to WEEI on Monday morning. “Chad was out yesterday. Tiquan was in there a little bit, Taylor has been in there a little bit, Slater has been in there a little bit, Julian has been in there a little bit. We're trying to get those guys involved.”
Among the three, Underwood -- who was signed off the practice squad this week -- was the only one targeted Sunday. Running free in the secondary, a wide-open Underwood dropped what would have been a big gainer in the first quarter.
"Ti, he was on our team late in the preseason, really picked up our offense very quickly, and he's just always been on the radar for our scouting department,” Brady said. "We had an opportunity to bring him back and we did. He's proven that he's very dependable in practice. I was bummed for him last night, because I know how badly he wanted to make that play. But he'll have other opportunities. He's a good young player that really works hard. He deserves an opportunity, and he got one yesterday. I know he wishes that we would have executed better. But that's part of football."