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Monday, September 5, 2011
Health key with thin depth at tight end

By Chris Forsberg

Chris Forsberg/ESPN BostonTight end Aaron Hernandez meets with reporters at his locker Monday at Gillette Stadium.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Very rarely are there positional meetings in New England with less bodies in attendance than quarterback and specialists. But as the Patriots prep for Week 1 of the 2011 season, tight end gatherings are as thin as it gets.

"It's a little quiet right now with just me and [Rob Gronkowski] in there," admitted tight end Aaron Hernandez. "I’m sure someone else will come in. I don’t mind it, though. [Gronkowski is] a great tight end. I don’t mind it being us."

The Patriots elected to carry more quarterbacks (3) and specialists (3) while trimming down to the league-mandated 53-man limit Saturday, and that's thrust the play -- and health -- of two second-year players into the spotlight. While both Hernandez (45 receptions, 563 yards, 6 TDs) and Gronkowski (42 receptions, 546 yards, 10 TD) had phenomenal rookie campaigns, that's still mighty thin for a position the Patriots lean so heavily on.

What's more, the Patriots do not currently boast any additional depth on their eight-man practice squad after both undrafted rookie Will Yeatman (Dolphins) and fifth-round draft pick Lee Smith (Bills) were swooped up off waivers by AFC East rivals.

So position meetings currently feature plenty of 1-on-1 time between the two young tight ends and position coach Brian Ferentz. Regardless of that lack of depth, Gronkowski and Hernandez say little will change for them.

"It’s basically the same thing as always; Whether it's two or five [tight ends], I still gotta go out there and do what I do," said Gronkowski. "I have to do what the coaches ask me to do. Just go out there and perform how I can perform. Go out there and do the job they ask me to do. I don’t feel like anything changes at all. Eight tight ends in there or two, it doesn’t matter."

Health remains the key issue. Hernandez missed the final two weeks of the 2010 regular season with a hip injury, a situation now that would force the Patriots to scramble for additional depth.

Asked whether someone like rookie offensive tackle Nate Solder, who transitioned from tight end in college, could assume the run-blocking duties of a third tight end, Hernandez said there might be a handful of emergency bodies on the team (and maybe ones that would be less risky than the team's first-round pick and top backup tackle).

"I'm sure [Solder] can, probably other people can as well," said Hernandez. "We'll just take it day by day and the coaches will make that decision."

The Patriots could also bring back veteran Alge Crumpler after Week 1 when contracts are no longer guaranteed. Crumpler served as a captain in New England last year and helped nurture those young tight ends. For now, Hernandez said he's leaning on advice from the veteran wide receivers.

"I feel more comfortable every day because we obviously have great receivers like Deion [Branch], [Chad Ochocinco], and Wes [Welker]," said Hernandez. "They are always correcting us, teaching how to attack people, and stuff like that."