Rookie TEs make immediate impact for Pats

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- If you're curious how the Patriots continue to produce championship quality teams under Bill Belichick, look no further than New England's tight end position.

Considered a major area of need for the Pats in the offseason, Belichick and Co. not only fixed their tight end problem, they turned it into one of the stronger units on the offense by drafting Rob Gronkowski (second round) and Aaron Hernandez (fourth round), and bringing in free agent Alge Crumpler to add veteran leadership.

"They throw the ball to them a lot," Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "The red zone is a big deal for them. They have a lot of touchdown catches between Hernandez and [Gronkowski]. They try to find them in key situations. Most of [Gronkowski's] catches are for first downs, too. They find him on third down quite a bit."

The two rookies have turned into reliable and effective targets in the New England passing game. Hernandez and Gronkowski have combined for 65 catches, 835 yards and 10 touchdowns, outstanding production for a pair of draft choices taken outside the first round.

No doubt the Bears have paid particular attention to the Patriots' tight ends in practice this week, especially since the defense is dealing with some injuries at linebacker.

"They're good, and they can also block," Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. "No. 87 [Gronkowski], now he can block. He is a physical blocker. They've done a great job with those guys."

Unlike other NFL teams, the Patriots draft extremely well and usually receive immediate contributions from many of their first-year players. In addition to Gronkowski and Hernandez playing significant roles on offense, the Patriots start three rookies on the defensive side of the ball (Brandon Spikes, Jermaine Cunningham, Devin McCourty) and also drafted punter Zoltan Mesko in the fifth round.

The previous year, Belichick selected current starters Patrick Chung (second round), Sebastian Vollmer (second round) and Brandon Tate (second round).

When a franchise accumulates 10 consecutive winning seasons, it doesn't happen by accident. Few, if any organizations, do a better job of evaluating talent and understanding their own personnel than New England.