FOXBOROUGH — Patriots fans know all about tight end Rob Gronkowski: Larger-than-life man-child, record-setting Pro Bowler, spike master, magazine cover boy (in the nude, no less), signed through 2019.
Patriots fans know all about tight end Aaron Hernandez: Versatile, vital, productive, fond of tattoos, first-round talent who slipped to the fourth round, signed through 2018.
Patriots fans even knew about tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., who spent a week with the team and appeared in one game before being released.
Patriots fans know . . . what, exactly, about tight end Daniel Fells?
A 29-year-old who has drawn paychecks from six teams over seven NFL seasons, Fells has career totals of 89 catches for 1,019 yards and eight touchdowns — numbers eclipsed by Gronkowski last season.
But with Hernandez having missed the last two-plus games with an ankle injury, and Gronkowski sitting out a practice here and there with a hip injury, Fells has been handed an opportunity to find a role with the Patriots — and introduce himself to the team’s fans.
“Everyone looks for an opportunity, no matter when it comes or how it comes. You just always have to make sure you’re ready,” Fells said. “I go out there every single day making sure I’m prepared, make sure that I’m getting better, so that way if opportunity does knock, I’m ready to answer.”
Signed by the Patriots in March, Fells spent part of training camp on the physically unable to perform list and was inactive for the first two regular-season games. He made his Patriots debut two weeks ago at Baltimore (no catches), then had his first — and only — reception of the season on Sunday, an 18-yarder in the 52-28 win at Buffalo.
With Hernandez’s availability for this Sunday’s home game against Denver uncertain — he’s listed as questionable by the Patriots, as are Gronkowski and another tight end, Michael Hoomanawanui — Fells could see increased playing time, and have a ball or two thrown his way.
The way the Patriots utilize the tight end, it’s one of the factors that drew him to Foxborough.
“Let’s see, 90, 70? I’m good for 50 catches, right?” Fells said, noting the 2011 regular-season receptions for Gronkowski (90 for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns) and Hernandez (actually 79, for 910 yards and seven scores). “The production the two guys had last year, it was obvious they leaned on those guys. I knew they liked to utilize their tight ends.”
It’s a position Fells had to be talked into playing. Basketball was his first love (specifically the Los Angeles Lakers, since he grew up in Orange County), then baseball. Football, though, provided a scholarship to California-Davis, where he assumed he’d be playing receiver, his position in high school.
But his parents, and UC-Davis coach Bob Biggs, thought his size (Fells is 6 feet 4 inches, 265 pounds) might be better served at tight end. So Fells, rather reluctantly, agreed to the position change, then earned all-conference honors and the attention of NFL scouts. It was a move that has definitely paid off.
Fells always wanted to be in front of the camera (he earned a communications degree from UC-Davis). Almost every Sunday during football season, he is.
“It’s funny how things work out,” Fells said.
Now he’s here in New England, after stints with Atlanta (he signed with the Falcons in 2006 as an undrafted free agent), Oakland, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, and Denver. His most productive season came two years ago with the Rams, when he caught 41 passes for 391 yards and two touchdowns. Last season with the Broncos, he had 19 receptions for 256 yards and three scores. The Patriots held Fells without a catch in two games, including their playoff meeting, last season, both Broncos losses.
“Dan’s had good experience and production in the league,” coach Bill Belichick said. “We’ve seen him do a lot of different things — block, catch, play in the kicking game, pass protect; you know, all the things you see a tight end do. Dan knows what to do. He’s an experienced player, very professional in his attitude, his preparation, his film study, all of that.
“I wouldn’t classify him as a one-dimensional guy.”
Neither would Fells.
“I pride myself on being an all-around tight end, an all-around athlete, just being able to do whatever this team needs me to do,” Fells said. “Everyone tries to pigeonhole tight ends as a straight blocker, or straight route-runner, or H-back. I feel like me, as well as the other guys here, we can do all that. We’re not just in one spot, we don’t just line up and put our hand in the dirt. We can be flex-style like a wide receiver, we’re in the backfield lead-blocking. We do a lot of different things.”
Fells had the luxury of learning from Alge Crumpler in Atlanta, and now shares meeting rooms, practice fields, and locker space with Gronkowski and Hernandez. He’ll see plenty of familiar faces on Sunday with the Broncos in town, hoping that his number gets called, confident he’ll be able to produce if and when it does.
He might never be as well known as the Patriots’ two star tight ends, but Fells thinks he can fill a role on this team. He’s just not exactly sure what it might be, or what it might become.
“Coming here, I didn’t really consider myself having a role just yet. I think they were waiting to see where I could fit,” Fells said. “That’s one of the great things about this team. It’s continually evolving, and I’m excited to see what the future holds.”