NFL Nation: tight end

The Miami Dolphins suffered a major loss with starting tight end Dustin Keller out for the year with a right knee injury. Keller's knee took a gruesome hit Saturday night as he went down on a reception against the Houston Texans. His leg hyperextended, and Keller needed to be carted off the field.

With Keller done for the year, let’s examine what is next for the Dolphins at tight end.
  • Dion Sims: Miami’s fourth-round pick has been a pleasant surprise in training camp. Sims joined the Dolphins with the reputation as a big, blocking tight end. But Sims has showed more athleticism and catching ability than originally advertised. He is already Miami’s best blocking tight end, so he was going to get playing time regardless. The Dolphins may need him more than originally thought.
  • Charles Clay: The versatile H-back has played both tight end and fullback in Miami’s offense. But Clay is not particularly special at either position, especially as a full-time player. The Dolphins have been using Clay as a fullback more this year in training camp and the preseason. But that may have to change. He could revert to playing mostly tight end if needed.
  • Michael Egnew: The Dolphins have waited more than a year for the light to go on for Egnew, who is a 2012 third-round pick. This is a golden opportunity for him to prove his worth under dire circumstances. Egnew has a lot of natural ability as a pass-catcher. He's big and can run well. However, Egnew's inconsistency and struggles with blocking have kept him off the field. Egnew must continue to work to gain the trust of Miami’s coaching staff. He should get plenty of opportunities to show what he can do in the coming weeks.
The Dolphins also could look to free agency, but at this point, it's slim pickings at tight end. Their best chance for now is to develop the players they have in-house and try to get them ready for the regular season.
The New England Patriots are expected to be without dynamic tight end Aaron Hernandez for the third straight game.

Barring any last-minute changes, a source tells the AFC East blog that it's "unlikely" Hernandez will play Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. This confirms a report Friday by the NFL Network.

Hernandez continues to be bothered by a severe ankle sprain he suffered in Week 2 against the Arizona Cardinals. He returned briefly for two games, but probably came back too soon.

New England leads the NFL in total offense and can afford to rest Hernandez and get him healthy for the stretch run. After putting up career numbers in 2011, Hernandez has just 17 catches for 143 yards and two touchdowns this season.

This is a big game for New England. The Patriots are 6-3 and can create further distance in the AFC East. The Colts are also 6-3 and need this game to tighten their grip on a wild-card spot in the AFC.
The salary cap is an issue for all 32 NFL teams. Therefore, the New England Patriots had to set a hierarchy between Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker in considering long-term deals for the pass-catchers.



On Friday New England made its choice and it was a wise one. The Patriots agreed to a six-year contract extension first with Gronkowski, their Pro Bowl tight end. ESPN's Adam Schefter reports the extension is worth $54 million.

Gronkowski is 23 and coming off a record-setting season where he caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. He is the most valuable player of the three and his rookie contract was set to expire in 2014.

Hernandez, 22, also is coming off a career year. His rookie contract runs out in 2014. Welker, 31, signed a one-year franchise tag tender for $9.5 million and will be an unrestricted free agent in 2013.

The chances of New England keeping this dynamic trio together beyond 2013 are slim. Gronkowski, Hernandez and Welker are among the best at their respective positions, and paying them all market value would tie up too much of the salary cap in three players who have similar roles.

Welker pushed for long-term security this offseason. But the Patriots wisely balked, because Gronkowski was the primary target.

With "Gronk" in the fold for the long haul, New England's next step is to choose between Hernandez and Welker. The Patriots have a shot to sign one of the two players to a long-term extension, especially if they wait another year. That will be an interesting decision, considering the Patriots already have a tight end in front of Hernandez, but he's nearly a decade younger than Welker.

But signing Gronkowski first was a no-brainer. He has yet to enter his prime and is arguably the best tight end in the NFL. But 2012 might be the last time you see Gronkowski, Hernandez and Welker together on the same team, depending on what the Patriots decide to do next.



Sunday, 1/25