Belichick and new look at TE

FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots had hoped to build their offense around the unique talents of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but those plans obviously have been altered.

With Gronkowski sidelined after undergoing four surgeries on his left forearm this offseason, in addition to a back surgery, he might not be ready for the season opener Sept. 8 at Buffalo. And we all know about Hernandez.

So what’s left?

That was one of the notable topics in Bill Belichick’s Saturday morning news conference.

“I don't want to say this is Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig, but that’s the classic story … it’s there if they can do it,” Belichick said.

“They”, in this case, is a group including returning veterans Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui, along with healthy-again Jake Ballard and rookies Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford.

Ballard is listed at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, which is solid size for an in-line tight end. The former New York Giant said Friday that he is practicing without restrictions.

Asked what drew the Patriots to claim Ballard on waivers last year while he was recovering from a serious knee injury, Belichick said, “He’s a starting tight end in the National Football League. I don’t think it was a big gamble. He’s a good player, at a young age. We played against him. He’s a good player, he was available. I think he has good solid, physical characteristics. He works hard. He’s a smart kid. He has a good attitude. Works hard on his preparation and he’s worked very hard on his rehab. It’s great for him to make that kind of progress and get back out on the field.”

Meanwhile, Fells (6-4, 260) had a “good spring”, according to Belichick, showing up for training camp in good physical condition.

“I’m sure he’s looking to build on his spring here in training camp,” Belichick said.

Fells initially was the top choice to replace Gronkowski last season when Gronkowski broke his forearm, but after two games, was surpassed by Hoomanawanui (6-4, 260). He ended up playing 23 percent of the offensive snaps in 2012, but that number could grow this year. Hoomanawanui also has lined up as a lead-blocking fullback at times, which is versatility that adds to his value on the roster.

The 6-foot-7, 260-pound Sudfeld, a rookie free agent out of Nevada, looked pretty solid catching the ball in spring camps.

"I think Hooman and Zach have worked hard, they've certainly taken advantage of the reps they've gotten," Belichick said. "They've definitely gotten more."

STATISTICAL NOTE: Last year, when Gronkowski and Hernandez missed time due to injury, the team’s usage of the multiple tight end offense dipped to about 50 percent, according to ESPNBoston.com tracking. In 2011, when both were healthy, Gronkowski was on the field for 95 percent of the snaps, while Hernandez was on for 77 as the team made the multiple tight-end package its primary grouping.