The Patriots’ first public training camp practice is Thursday, July 29, and with 82 players on the roster, there is plenty to analyze. ESPNBoston.com has picked what it feels are the top eight aspects to monitor. As part of the “Countdown to Camp”, they will be counted down with one each day leading up to the first practice.
No. 8: Tight end turnover and red-zone impact
Why it’s a top issue: The Patriots had 65 trips inside the red-zone last season, which was the third-highest total in the NFL. They scored 34 touchdowns on those trips, for a 52.3 percent conversion rate (13th in the NFL). That is too many missed opportunities. When the space gets tight on the field, it is where bigger tight ends can distinguish themselves.
Why it might change: There is a complete overhaul at the tight end position, with players and coaches. The Patriots project to keep three tight ends on the roster, veteran Alge Crumpler (6-2, 275) and rookies Rob Gronkowski (6-6, 265) and Aaron Hernandez (6-1, 245), opening the possibility of having all three on the field in the red zone. Last year, the Patriots had two tight ends – Benjamin Watson (now in Cleveland) and Chris Baker (now in Seattle). The unit is now coached by Brian Ferentz, the son of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz.
Historical perspective: Not since the 2002 season have the Patriots had a complete overhaul at the position. That was the third year of Bill Belichick’s tenure and the team drafted Daniel Graham in the first round and signed free agents Christian Fauria and Cam Cleeland. That trio replaced Rod Rutledge and Jermaine Wiggins on the roster.
Xs and Os thought: When the Patriots scouted tight ends in the 2010 draft, they split them into two categories – the “Y” and the “F”. The “Y” position is one of the most challenging for a rookie to make an immediate impact because he is equally involved in both the run-blocking and pass-catching games, and that’s why it wouldn’t be surprising if second-round pick Gronkowski (“Y”) doesn’t have as immediate of an impact as fourth-round pick Hernandez (“F”).
Looking to the future: Crumpler is signed for the next two years and represents a bridge to the future as Gronkowski and Hernandez evolve as professionals. In part because Hernandez played in an offense at Florida with similar concepts to the Patriots, he figures to have the most immediate impact as a pass-catcher.
Fun fact: Prior to this year, the Patriots had not selected a tight end in the draft since 2006 (David Thomas, third round).