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The options at tight end

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff  June 28, 2013 11:29 AM

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Jake Ballard was very successful for the New York Giants in 2011 when they won the Super Bowl, catching 38 passes for 604 yards and four touchdowns. He’s coming off an ACL tear and through OTAs and minicamp has appeared rigid. But you can expect him to loosen up as he fully recovers from his injury.

Michael Hoomanawanui was the first tight end off the bench last season for the Patriots when Hernandez and Gronkowski went down with injuries. He also filled in as the team’s de facto fullback. Despite the lack of targets last season (5), he’s shown an ability to catch the ball when thrown in his direction. He has only two drops in his three-year career. However, like Hernandez, he’s had trouble in spots in run blocking. Prior to coming to the Patriots he was an eight-game starter for the St. Louis Rams.

Daniel Fells is often the forgotten man in the group because he rarely talks to the media and caught only four passes in 2012. But his 338 snaps last season were only a tad shy behind Hoomanawanui’s 363. People forget he was a 15-game starter for the Denver Broncos in 2011 (19 catches, 256 yards, 3 touchdowns) and had his best season in 2010 for the St. Louis Rams in which he caught 41 passes for 391 yards and two touchdowns. He’s capable, just not as dynamic as others on the roster or Hernandez for that matter.

Zach Sudfeld is one of two rookie free agents and he has had the benefit of being healthy in an unhealthy group -- which goes entirely against his injury riddled collegiate career. But he’s looked good so far. He caught the ball well in OTAs and minicamp and found himself in rotation with Tom Brady, a huge plus for a guy trying to make the team. He’s one to keep an eye on going forward.

Brandon Ford is the other rookie free agent on the team and he will likely get more attention going into training camp. A four-year player for Clemson, he has run as low as a 4.64 in the 40-yard dash (Hernandez ran as low as 4.53) and has lined up in the slot during his college tenure. His second position going into the draft was wide receiver, so he can work in the Flex tight end position that Hernandez excelled in. However, he was mostly inactive during OTAs and minicamp with an undisclosed injury. So there’s much to be seen going forward.

James Develin is also a tight end candidate for the Patriots. He’s listed as a fullback but he has worked out with the group during OTAs. As I wrote in late May, he appears to be directly competing with Hoomanawanui for that swing role, between tight end and fullback.

Of course, none of those remaining are going to have the versatility to line up at wide receiver, in the slot and in the backfield like Hernandez, but each can be serviceable for this revamped Patriots offense.

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Comments are rare from teammates

When Matt Light offered his thoughts on Aaron Hernandez’s situation, I think we all knew there was going to be more than a few people quoting the former Patriots tackle. The rarity of current and former members of the team commenting on the goings on in Foxborough is scarce enough that something as mild as saying you don’t stand for what someone believes in -- without clarifying what that is -- takes on a greater context.

It’s part of the team culture to shy away from the limelight, from controversy, and from the media. The team’s statement certainly suffices to a degree. And the players, current and former, are certainly within their right to decline comment because of the weight of their words. But there is also certainly an air of cowardice when no one who knows Hernandez best can speak to his character, condemn murder, offer condolences, or express remorse for the situation. The problem is the players have been struck with the fear of God, with their jobs on the line if they say anything not deemed football oriented, and only a limited amount at that. Sadly, this is also what it means to be a Patriot under Bill Belichick. It’s not just “do your job,” it’s “shut up or you won’t have a job.”

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Tweet of the week

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Tight ends depth chart

Here is my view of the tight ends depth chart as the roster currently stands.

Flex TE
Michael Hoomanawanui
Brandon Ford

Y TE
Rob Gronkowski
Jake Ballard
Zach Sudfeld
Daniel Fells

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What’s to come

- For the next two weeks, there will be no Patsctera while I’m on vacation. We’ll return in this space Friday July 19.

- Aaron Hernandez will be back in court for on July 24. However, he may seek another bail hearing sooner.

- Patriots players report to training camp July 25. This will be a day just for physicals. It won’t be open to the public or media for that matter.

- On July 26, training camp will officially open. Don’t expect much response in regard to Hernandez. But expect a huge presence from Boston.com and the Globe. More on that soon.

- Tedy Bruschi and Gil Santos will be inducted into the Patriots hall of fame 5 p.m. July 29 outside the Hall at Patriot Place. The ceremony will be followed by an in-stadium practice at 7 p.m. for season ticket holders.

- The Patriots will hold joint practices with the Eagles Aug. 6-7 at NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia ahead of the two teams’ first preseason game Friday Aug. 9. We’ll see how good this receiver group is finally.

- The NFL kicks off the regular season Thursday Sept. 5th with defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens taking on the Denver Broncos. The Patriots open the regular season that Sunday on the 8th, visiting the Buffalo Bills. We’re now 72 days away from that point.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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