Hoomanawanui & restricted FAs

INDIANAPOLIS -- Early-season injuries to both Aaron Hernandez and Daniel Fells left the Patriots short-handed at tight end, leading them to sign Michael Hoomanawanui off the Redskins practice squad shortly after he was released by the Rams.

The move may have first appeared to be a stopgap option while Hernandez and Fells recovered, but "Hooman" eventually became an important offensive piece with Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski battling injuries for much of the year, and Fells not coming along from a performance standpoint like the team had hoped.

Hoomanawanui ended up playing nearly 23 percent of the total offensive snaps during the 2012 regular season, and is set to become a restricted free agent this offseason. Given the way restricted free agency works in the NFL, the Patriots can likely have Hoomanawanui back if there's interest.

Matt Williamson of ESPN.com recently laid out his top 20 restricted free agents for 2013, including Hoomanawanui at No. 17. He notes that the third-year tight end filled in in a Gronkowski-like role this season, but offers an inferior skill set overall.

The Patriots have a number of tight ends on their roster already, including Jake Ballard, whom they claimed last offseason. If things shake out how they likely hope for (with all players being healthy), Ballard projects behind Gronkowski and Hernandez on the tight end depth chart. Fells is a possible cap casualty given his limited role and $1.25 million salary for next season.

Should Hoomanawanui be retained, he'd give the Patriots depth and experience within the system. The 24-year-old finished 2012 with five catches for 109 yards.

To see Williamson's list in its entirety, CLICK HERE (Insider content).