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Can Hoomanawanui stiff arm the competition for his job?
There's little intrigue at the top of the Patriots tight end depth chart. Rob Gronkowski is the consensus best tight end in the game, and might go down as the best of all-time by the time he's through. This season, Gronk will be complemented by free agent signee Scott Chandler, whose massive 6'7" frame should come in handy as a red zone weapon.

However, things get a bit murkier after those two on the depth chart. Fans anticipated an Aaron Hernandez-like "move TE" role for Tim Wright after he was acquired in the Logan Mankins trade, but he never really established more than a bit role in New England last season. Despite turning his 32 targets into a respectable 26 catches for 259 yards and 6 touchdowns, Wright was surprisingly released last month. Former up-and-coming star Fred Davis was also cut loose after a brief offseason stint with the club, leaving what initially looked like a loaded tight end depth chart suddenly looking extremely top-heavy.

Of course, if all goes to plan, the winner of this position battle won't see a ton of snaps this season. However, depth at tight end will always be a concern as long as Gronkowski remains a major part of the Patriots offense. No tight end in the league can replicate what a healthy Gronk does on a week-to-week basis, and no one on the roster would be asked to do so if (knocks frantically on wood) Gronk hypothetically goes down. Tight end depth is, however, increasingly important for a team that often uses it's tight ends to dictate favorable defensive looks. An injury to either of the top two options would suddenly thrust the winner of this competition into a meaningful role.

Michael Hoomanawanui

Originally a fifth round draft pick by the Rams, "Hooman" was picked up by the Pats just prior to the start of the 2012 season after his release from the Rams. While he's never made much of an impact in the passing game, he's managed to stick around for the past three seasons as a hard-working role player who fits the Belichick mantra "Do your job" to a T.

That role has largely been blocking during Hooman's time in New England. Nearly 70% of his snaps last season were spent blocking, a ratio that's stayed consistent over his New England career. The most involved he's been in the passing game over that time was 2013, when he caught 15 of his 21 targets for 175 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers are remarkably low considering Hooman played 74% of the Patriots offensive snaps that season.

Unfortunately for Hooman, his blocking hasn't been strong enough recently to guarantee him a job. 2014 marked the second consecutive season he's gotten negative marks for both pass and run blocking from ProFootballFocus, including a dreadful -11.3 run blocking grade. That combined with a full season of healthy Gronk to cut his snaps down from 825 in 2013 to 551 last year (including playoffs).

Given his familiarity with the offense, Hooman will likely enter camp as the first non Gronk/Chandler tight end on the depth chart, but his grasp on that role could be tenuous at best. As a five year veteran, he carries a cap charge of $1.58 million. That's not a major hit, but it's significantly higher than the rookie deals his primary competition are playing for. With his contract up at the end of this season, Hooman also has very little dead money left on his deal. This means that cutting him would open up $1.4 million in cap space, additional flexibility that could be used either on in-season moves or carried over into the next offseason.

With that being said, the Patriots have enough cap space (the excellent Miguel Benzen currently has them at approximately $10.7 million in space) and won't cut Hooman simply for cap savings. If his competition is unable to separate themselves from him, his cap charge is relatively inexpensive for a reliable veteran who knows the system and fits in the culture of the team. However, if he doesn't step up his blocking soon, it wouldn't be surprising to see the team start searching for an upgrade.

AJ Derby

A sixth round pick out of Arkansas this spring, Derby has taken a fascinating path to the NFL. Not only did his collegiate career take him to three different schools (Iowa, Coffeyville Community College, Arkansas), but the 6'4", 255 pound Derby spent the vast majority of that time at quarterback. He finally converted to tight end as a senior with the Razorbacks, catching 22 balls for 303 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns against SEC competition. His season was highlighted by an eye-opening 54 catch and run touchdown against Alabama



Derby's athletic potential was on full display on that play. He has enough speed to outrun defenders and enough size to be a tough tackle once he gets going, making him a constant after-the-catch threat. He also displayed good hands as a Razorback, with only one drop last season despite plenty of contested catches in traffic.

However, Derby is unsurprisingly raw at his new position, with two specific weaknesses to his game that will likely keep him from earning meaningful snaps as a rookie. His route running needs plenty of work, especially given the precision Tom Brady expects from his pass catchers. More importantly for a back-up tight end, his blocking is best described as a work in progress, as poor technique lead to struggles as a blocker in college. Many of his issues are correctable, but fixing bad habits and technique is a time consuming process. His blocking would also benefit from a year or two in an NFL weight training program.

Those issues make it unlikely for Derby to unseat Hoomanawanui at least this season, but his obvious upside makes him a player to watch come August. I could easily see him getting stashed on the practice squad for a year, giving him time to develop and adapt more to his relatively new position. His combination of size and speed could also factor in on special teams, which would dramatically increase his odds of making the final roster.

Sleeper: Jake Bequette

Amazingly, Derby actually has more experience at tight end than another former Razorback in the competition. With only 43 career snaps to show for his three year career as a defensive end, 2012 third round pick Jake Bequette is moving to the other side of the line of scrimmage this offseason.

The position change raised eyebrows when first reported during minicamps, but further research reveals the logic behind the move. Much of Bequette's work as a Patriot has come behind the scenes as a member of the scout team, where he's played his fair share of tight end. Bequette was spotted with one of the black jerseys that signify practice players of the week several times last season, and at least some of that work likely came at tight end. Multiple reporters noted that Bequette looked surprisingly smooth running routes and catching the ball during minicamps and OTAs.

There's a big jump from running routes in shorts and doing so in pads against live competition, and it remains to be seen how Bequette will fare as a pass catcher. He does offer intriguing potential as a run blocker, where the strength and aggression required to play defensive end will really pay dividends. Bequette surely needs some work with his technique, but he has the raw tools to be a Matthew Mulligan-esque mauler.

Of course, all of this is a mystery until we see Bequette go out and do it against live NFL competition. He'll never be a mismatch creator in the passing game, but he has the potential to be a blocking upgrade from what Hoomanawanui has given them. Mere competence as a pass catcher is all he'll need if he lives up to that blocking potential, especially given the role of the third tight end in this offense. He's aided slightly in this competition by theoretically providing depth at two positions, giving him a little extra roster value.

The forecast:

This competition might be the most difficult to forecast, given how little we know about Derby and Bequette at their new position. However, I'm feeling frisky today, so I'm going to make a bit of a "out of left field" prediction: Bequette proves to be a good enough run blocker to earn the role over the more expensive Hoomanawanui, who gets cut while Derby gets stashed on the practice squad. Boom. #HotTake.

Stay tuned next week as the "Training Camp Battles" series winds down with some of the "sexier" camp competitons. We'll be splitting the running back position into two categories (early down back and third down back), while also taking a look at the fourth receiver spot and the wide open cornerback position.

Ned Brady 7/24/2015 03:33:00 PM Edit
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