Forget about Aaron Hernandez. He has his own problems now as he awaits trial on a murder charge. The team still has to deal with the very real possibility that Rob Gronkowski may miss some time in the early part of the regular season as he recovers from back surgery. And the Patriots still have to fill the sizable hole on offense left by the loss of Hernandez.
While taking into consideration that Hernandez may very well be replaced by a mix of skilled position players, wide receivers and tight ends, there are still strong candidates on the roster. In the team’s two-tight end offense, Hernandez worked as the team’s flex tight end while Gronkowski is the team’s primary blocking tight end, or Y.
Gronkowski is immediately backed up by Jake Ballard, who had some success with the New York Giants in 2011 (38 receptions, 604 yards, 4 touchdowns) before suffering an ACL tear that wiped away his 2012 season. That’s not to say Ballard still doesn’t have competition. Undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld out of Nevada has looked impressive in mini-camp and veteran Daniel Fells (92 career receptions, 1,086 yards, 8 touchdowns) is still available.
At the flex, Michael Hoomanawanui (25 career receptions, 328 yards, 5 touchdowns) filled in for Hernandez last season, shifting back and forth between tight end and fullback in a hybrid role. Undrafted rookie Brandon Ford has also worked as a flex-like tight end while in college at Clemson, moving out wide at times while catching 65 career passes for 728 yards and 12 TDs.
The Patriots have also worked out fullback James Develin with the tight ends group. He is a long shot to be a flex tight end.