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Tight-knit group for Patriots

By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / August 8, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - One day after the Patriots opened camp, they announced seven cuts. Among them was veteran tight end Alge Crumpler.

Last season, Crumpler’s locker was sandwiched between rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski called him “Professor Crump,’’ and he and Hernandez repeatedly spoke of Crumpler’s guidance throughout the season.

Now, they are on their own. Gronkowski seems comfortable in camp, grabbing passes in traffic and hauling in deep throws in the end zone. Hernandez, who was hampered last season by a hip injury, appears to have his mobility again, and on Saturday secured one-handed grabs and difficult catches during situational work.

Based on games played, they are now the “veterans’’ of the tight end group that became relevant again for the Patriots last season.

“Me and [Gronkowski] played last year, and we’re really the only two in the room that have been on the field, so we have to kind of be leaders,’’ said Hernandez. “But Crumpler was a great leader and that definitely was a loss.’’

There are five tight ends in camp, including Carson Butler, who spent much of last season on the practice squad. Rookies Lee Smith and Will Yeatman round out the bunch.

Smith, is a 6-foot-6-inch, 269-pounder who was selected in the fifth round out of Marshall. He has been pegged as a blocking tight end, but in practices has displayed decent hands. Yeatman is a rookie free agent out of Maryland.

The group is a talented one that has experienced its share of ups and downs during camp, like every position, said offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.

“Alge was a guy that was named captain soon after he came here, so obviously that’s a guy that meant a lot to that [locker] room, and hopefully they learned from those things,’’ O’Brien said. “Again, you can see signs of what they learned from him in these 12 practices that we’ve had - a lot of hard work, competition, getting better every day.

“With Aaron and Rob, I think you are looking at two really football-smart guys, so they have come a long way with knowing their offense. Hopefully, they can carry some of their work ethic that Alge taught them. It’s a good group of tight ends. All five of those guys have different types of abilities and skill sets. They’re all working at it and we’re happy with that group.’’

During camp last year and throughout the season, Tom Brady worked with both Gronkowski and Hernandez. The two accounted for 16 (Gronkowski 10, Hernandez six) of Brady’s 36 touchdown passes last season. Hernandez pulled in 45 receptions and Gronkowski 42. Hernandez tallied 563 receiving yards, Gronkowski 546.

Gronkowski’s rookie performance was even more impressive considering he missed his final season at Arizona because of a back injury. He made it through last season healthy.

“Going into Year 2, you know more,’’ Gronkowski said. “[Last season] I had to learn a whole new playbook and I’m coming into this year with a way better understanding, but you never know the whole playbook. I still have a lot of work to do.’’

Hernandez and Gronkowski won’t be secrets this season as teams prepare to face the Patriots. Brady said a key will be finding ways to keep them involved.

“[Gronkowski] has to be a good leader for this team,’’ said Brady. “With the loss of Alge, he and Aaron are two young guys who really need to step up and become leaders. That’s what I’m hoping they can do for us.’’

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com.

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