The dog days of summer have come so quickly for the New England Patriots, though not nearly quick enough for us fans. With Training Camp kicked off and underway, let's dive right in, shall we? Early Saturday morning, coach Bill Belichick held a press conference before the team headed outside for another practice. Among the question asked of him was a very prominent issue hanging above the team's head, what's going on at tightend?
Just one year ago, it seemed that the Patriots were paving the way for the two tightend system, locking up young phenoms Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The duo seemed perfect to fit the Patriots new offensive style. Oh how times change, with Hernandez in jail and Gronk's timetable for return very uncertain after multiple surgeries. Now what?
“I don't want to say this is Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig, but that’s the classic story … it’s there if they can do it,” Belichick said.
What I believe Bill was referencing to was Wally Pipp as Lou Gehrig's mentor, relating it to their tightend situation with veterans Danny Fells, Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui, and rookies Zach Sudfield and Brandon Ford. No doubt that there is some talent in this group, especially if you include the injured Gronk. Belichick addressed the reason the Pats claimed Jake Ballard off waivers last season, even though they seemed to be perfectly settled with Gronk and Hernandez, while Ballard was coming off a torn ACL:
“He’s [Jake Ballard] a starting tight end in the National Football League. I don’t think it was a big gamble. He’s a good player, at a young age. We played against him. He’s a good player, he was available. I think he has good solid, physical characteristics. He works hard. He’s a smart kid. He has a good attitude. Works hard on his preparation and he’s worked very hard on his rehab. It’s great for him to make that kind of progress and get back out on the field.”
Clearly we can say now that claiming Ballard was a great decision for the team. Moving on, Bill had this to say about Danny Fells, who apparently performed well during spring OTA's:
“I’m sure he’s looking to build on his spring here in training camp,” Belichick said.
And lastly, Bill covered Hoomanawanui (who's versatility is clutch, as the Pats can play him at fullback if needed) and one of the rookies, Zach Sudfield:
"I think Hooman and Zach have worked hard, they've certainly taken advantage of the reps they've gotten," Belichick said. "They've definitely gotten more."
With Gronk's uncertainty and Hernandez gone, there was plenty to worry about at the tightend position. After seeing Bill's confidence in some of these players though, some comfort can be found. I think that out of this whole group, Ballard will prove to be the key player, even though Fells is supposed to be the closest thing we got to a Gronkowski backup. The NFL season is long and grueling for these players, so it would be wise to allow Gronk all the time he needs for recovering 100%, while the rest of the crew hold down the fort at tightend.
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