FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — For one unpadded practice in the first week of August, tight end Zach Sudfeld looked like the Rob Gronkowski replacement the Patriots might need if their All-Pro tight end isn't ready to go Week 1.
Sudfeld's emergence is no secret, with reports of his dominance tracing all the way back to organized team activities in May.
His 6'7", 260-pound frame was enough to begin the discussion, but his pass-catching savvy continued the snowballing of comparisons and expectations.
"Zach's come in and absorbed a lot of information," head coach Bill Belichick said. "The offense that he played in in Nevada is quite a bit different than what we do. I'm sure there's some similarities, but there's quite a few difference as well. He's been able to acclimate to those changes. Catches the ball well."
Sudfeld has shown that ability throughout camp. He had a pair of drops on Monday, one on a pass down the right sideline in offense-only drills and another on a deep pass in the end zone in an end-of-half drill.
Other than that, he was his usual self, with an impressive over-head leaping catch in the end zone and a nice reception against safety Adrian Wilson on a pass over the middle. In fact, before today's practice, I had not charted Sudfeld with a drop since July 30.
As we all know, though, the responsibilities of a tight end go far beyond just catching passes -- especially in Foxborough.
"I think it's one of the most difficult positions in any offense. Any time you change formations, that player is really at the heart of the changes," Belichick said. "It's normally the tight ends that are involved in a lot of the formation variations, which then involve them in a lot of different assignments. Basically, they're involved in the passing game, the running game, pass protection, blitz adjustment...you might be able to get around a part of that, but not too many parts of it, or else the guy's a receiver or he's an offensive linemen."
So, yeah, there's a lot a tight end has to be able to do in order to make an impact in the Patriots offense. No wonder Belichick has treated tight ends like gold, stockpiling depth at the position for years.
Gronkowski is involved in every aspect of the game, and although his most notable impact is as a receiver, he has become one of the better blocking tight ends in the league on top of that.
In Monday's walkthrough, Sudfeld was spotted lining up as a blocker on a few running plays. We didn't get a great look at his abilities -- the players were not in pads for the first time since the second practice of training camp, and for only the third time in nine practices since camp opened.
The takeaways from Monday's walkthrough were few and far between, but Sudfeld's new role and continued success catching the ball, along with Belichick's comments about his progress, were enough that it looks like the Patriots could have an early return on their low-cost investment.
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