When healthy, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have established themselves among the elite players at the position in the NFL. Gronkowski's three-season start to his career has been historic.
The two have question marks surrounding their respective offseasons, but it's clear that when they are together on the field, there's little in the way of an answer for any defense. What makes the duo even more tantalizing is that they're just 24 (Gronkowski) and 23 (Hernandez) years old and each is under contract with the Patriots through at least 2018.
In his "futures" look at the best tight ends for 2016, ESPN Insider's Gary Horton features both Gronkowski and Hernandez in his top five, though it's Saints tight end Jimmy Graham who tops his lookahead list, with Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph in the second spot.
Gronkowski checks in third, and Horton writes:
"This is another somewhat risky ranking because of health issues and the eventual retirement of QB Tom Brady, who loves to get the ball to Gronk. He has underrated deep speed, is a great red zone target and a nightmare matchup who is tough to bring down after the catch. The key will be to continue to run this offensive scheme, keep the Pats' TEs healthy and be stable at the QB position -- all things that Bill Belichick will address."
Hernandez, meanwhile, slots in just two places behind at number five.
"This is clearly contingent on his legal issues getting resolved, but we don't want to presume anything yet. And for his on-field play, he warrants a spot on this list. Even if Brady isn't around this will be a creative, TE-driven offense, and you know that Belichick will not let the QB position fail. Hernandez could actually move up this list because of his versatility, as he has wide receiver skills and he can line up anywhere on the field to get the right matchup -- including in the backfield. He can stretch the defense, he is terrific after the catch and he is a big play waiting to happen."
Horton alludes to the health and legal matters that the duo is currently working through, which will certainly impact how their futures unfold in New England. Based on talent alone, we'd make the case that Gronkowski is the top tight end in the game now and will be in 2016 given his transcendent combination of size, strength, speed, blocking and catching skills. As for Hernandez, it's splitting hairs between he and Graham, as while Graham has the edge in size and is an athletic freak who can own the red zone, Hernandez's versatility is unlike any other offensive player in the league. Hernandez has also yet to play a full 16-game season in the NFL.
If this pair of pass catchers can stay on the field, the Patriots offense will remain dynamic for many years to come.
To see the full list (Insider content), CLICK HERE.