In recently agreeing to a long-term extension with tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots have secured a cornerstone at the position for years to come.
Over the next three days, as the Patriots take the field for the team’s lone mandatory minicamp of the offseason, Gronkowski and a host of other tight ends aren’t expected to be on the field, leaving the Patriots thin at the position.
Like Gronkowski, veteran addition Daniel Fells has not been spotted on the field this offseason, and Aaron Hernandez was also not on the field at the team’s OTA this past Thursday.
Couple those with an injury suffered to undrafted rookie tight end Brad Herman (which Mike Rodak reports was to his Achilles and required surgery), and the Patriots quickly found themselves down to two tight ends on the field.
Moreover, those two were Alex Silvestro, who spent the 2011 season as a defensive end in New England (mostly practice squad), and Bo Scaife, who was officially signed earlier in the day and struggled on the field with his conditioning.
If the reason for Hernandez’ absence on Thursday was health-related and may impact his availability for this week's minicamp, the possibility of the team adding another tight end before minicamp could be on the table (the team has open roster spots).
In examining such a possibility, a number of factors likely play into the team’s thought process.
1. Who is available? The veteran market for free agent tight ends is slim, with players such as Jeremy Shockey and Reggie Kelly still available. The Patriots recently signed and subsequently released Nick Melillo, an undrafted player out of Kentucky, and could dip into the pool of undrafted products once again.
2. Can a player picked up within the next 24 hours learn enough of the playbook to positively impact practice? This may depend on the player and the nature of the drills scheduled for Tuesday. We saw Scaife on the field Thursday just hours after being officially signed, and players can be utilized during individual drills, on scout teams, and some are able to pick up formations and basic plays with relative ease.
3. If the trio of Gronkowski, Hernandez and Fells all look primed to return to the field for training camp, is it necessary to invest in a tight end? The team may opt to look at the position via a long-term lens, as it would appear that the position will be in very good shape later in July. If the Patriots feel good about their primary trio (which we think they do), plus Scaife and Silvestro, then there may not be a need to add a sixth tight end this week.
4. Roster Flexibility. The Patriots recently opened up roster spots under the 90-man allowable limit, and could opt to fill the gaps at different positions, or not at all. This too will be an interesting facet to follow through minicamp and into the summer.