This morning's "Bubble Watch" entry on Daniel Fells opens a window to look closer at the Patriots' tight end position, both from a playing-style and playing-time perspective, while projecting how things might look in 2013.
There are two different tight ends, and in revisiting an ESPNBoston.com piece from 2010 when the Patriots selected Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the NFL Draft, they are summed up this way: "One category was devoted to the more traditional-style tight end, the "Y," who is powerful enough to be a steamrolling blocker but also athletic enough to be a threat in the middle of the field as a pass-catcher. ... The other category was for on-the-move tight ends, the "F," who is almost receiver-like in terms of shiftiness but in turn might not be as powerful a blocker."
Rob Gronkowski is the prototype for the "Y" spot. At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, he's powerful at the line of scrimmage, but also runs well enough to be a threat in the passing game at multiple levels of the field. Aaron Hernandez, at 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds, was in many ways the prototype "F" tight end.
Because of this, the Patriots planned to build their offense around both of them; the plan was to keep them on the field for the majority of snaps. The 2011 season was a good example of this, as Gronkowski played a (non-quarterback) team-high 94.8 percent of the offensive snaps, while Hernandez was third among skill-position players at 77.1 percent.
It's unlikely that the Patriots have a similar breakdown this year, because they figure to rely on multiple players (tight ends and receivers) to fill the Hernandez void, and also if Gronkowski misses time while rehabbing.
With Gronkowski's health putting his availability for the 2013 season-opener in question, and Hernandez no longer part of the team, here is one viewpoint of how the team's other tight end personnel fits:
Pure Y tight end
Jake Ballard -- 6-foot-6, 275 pounds -- Looks like a powerful blocker on the line, with some reliable hands in the passing game in the short-to-intermediate areas. He won't threaten the seam like Gronkowski because he doesn't run as well.
Combination tight end
Daniel Fells -- 6-foot-4, 265 pounds -- Seems to run the best of the veteran tight ends after Gronkowski, and thus makes him an option to be on the move at times (the Patriots would lose out on athleticism/run-after-the-catch in a Fells-for-Hernandez exchange). Fells is also a competitive blocker (better than Hernandez); a smart player who was pushed out of favor at times in 2012.
Michael Hoomanawanui -- 6-foot-4, 263 pounds -- The four-year veteran earned a game ball for stepping in for Gronkowski in the AFC Divisional Round playoff win over the Texans. He has versatility to line up at fullback, on the line, and split out wide. He doesn't necessarily have one trait that stands out like a Gronkowski or Hernandez, but he seems to have earned the trust of the coaching staff because of his overall reliability.
Zach Sudfeld -- 6-foot-7, 260 pounds -- A rookie free-agent out of Nevada, he caught the ball well in spring camps and at one point earned some individual time with quarterback Tom Brady in drills. It looks like he might have some flexibility to line up at both spots, although it's a bit early to make that call, especially since players have yet to put on the pads.
(Note: We'll need to see more of rookie free agent Brandon Ford to have an informed opinion.)