Breaking down the tight ends: Patriots

Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson breaks down the tight ends of each AFC East team. Today: New England Patriots.

The Patriots are loaded at this position and use their tight ends like no other team in the league. Defenses must distinguish pre-snap how they count each tight end. By doing so, defenses show their hands to quarterback Tom Brady, who exploits the weaknesses. The Pats can mix and match their tight ends and offensive personnel overall like no other offense in the NFL.

Aaron Hernandez is equal parts wide receiver and tight end. If the defense counts him as a tight end, he can split out wide and exploit heavier defensive personnel. If they count him as a wideout, he can line up in a traditional tight end position and New England can run the ball against lighter personnel. Hernandez can run wide receiver routes and is also superb after the catch. But Brady’s confidence in Hernandez did seem to wane a little as the 2010 season progressed because Hernandez dropped more passes than he should have. He also had hip surgery this offseason, so an injury could have played a role later in the season. Hernandez doesn’t turn 22 until November. This youngster is just dripping with potential -- especially in this offense.

Rob Gronkowski is the pure tight end on the roster -- and an extremely good one. As a receiver, he presents matchup problems because he is too big and physical for most defensive backs and too agile and quick for most linebackers. He is exceptional in the red zone and is also a very good blocker. Gronkowski can hold his own against NFL defensive ends in the trenches. Gronkowski, like Hernandez, was a rookie last season and should only get better. As rookie tight ends go, Gronkowski was remarkably consistent. He finished the season very strong.

Alge Crumpler is equal parts wide receiver and offensive lineman. He is a killer blocker in the run and pass games. He plays hard and is a great person to run behind when his team needs a tough yard. Crumpler is also a great help to New England’s offensive tackles in protection. If the opponent counts him as a sixth lineman, he still has the ability to catch the ball and make a play or two as a receiver. But this 10 year veteran is 33 years old and recently had surgery on his shoulder.

New England made an interesting selection in the fifth round of this year’s draft, picking Lee Smith. He is a tremendous blocker but doesn’t create mismatches in the passing game. He does have great size, though, and catches the ball cleanly. He appears to be the heir-apparent for Crumpler. In the meantime, he gives the Patriots yet another option with this position.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see this offense employ more three-tight end sets -- or even put Smith, Crumpler, Gronkowski and Hernandez on the field together. There are just so many possibilities. New England is sure to explore them all -- and make things very difficult on opposing defensive coordinators.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.