FOXBOROUGH – With Rob Gronkowski injured and the release of Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots’ tight end corps looked very different on Friday morning, the first official day of training camp for the 2013 NFL season.
After addressing the Hernandez situation on Wednesday, coach Bill Belichick turned to the tight ends he has on the roster, starting with the timetable for Gronkowski’s return, in which he told reporters he did not know when his franchise tight end would be ready to go.
“I can’t predict what is going to happen with rehabilitations or injuries of any sort,” Belichick said before practice. “Players are day-to-day. As we know, sometimes that’s a steady line, sometimes that’s slow progress and then a big jump … There’s no way to predict what’s exactly going to happen. We’ll just take everybody day by day, see how they do, and treat them the next day based on what their performance and how they feel from the day before.”
The Patriots have five tight ends on the training camp roster besides Gronkowski: Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui, Daniel Fells, Brandon Ford, and Zach Sudfeld. Hoomanawanui and Fells are returning from last year’s team, while Ballard and Sudfeld are new additions: Ballard previously played with the New York Giants, and Sudfeld signed as an undrafted rookie.
The fact that the two healthy returning tight ends New England has this season combined for just nine catches, 194 yards, and no touchdowns in 2012 hasn’t fazed how Belichick or the receivers plan to approach this season.
“There’s turnover on every team, every year. That’s just the way it is in the National Football League,” said Belichick. “We have it this year, so does every other team in the league. That’s part of putting together a football team. Whatever the positions, whatever the circumstances are, all 32 teams are going through the same thing.”
“Every year in training camp all the teams are going through this, there’s new guys all over the place,” Ballard said. “It’s just something that comes along with football and you gotta get used to it and move on or you’re not going to do anything special.”
The tight ends on the field Friday were happy to get back out there, and looked strong and were moving well, especially Ballard, who tore his ACL in Super Bowl XLVI and missed the entire 2012 season.
“I definitely feel better; I just need to keep doing the little things, icing after practice and all that good stuff, stretching, staying loose and getting warmed up, and making sure I’m not getting tight,” said Ballard. “We’ve all been away for this whole summer; putting all this work in, we’re all happy to get back to football and be out here and working hard… I feel like I have a good opportunity on this team.”
Heading into this season, Hoomanawanui is looking to build off a successful 2012, where he helped fill in for Rob Gronkowski when Gronkowski broke his arm in Week 11 and played just one full game the rest of the season.
“I have the same mindset and mentality going into every year,” said Hoomanawanui. “No matter where they put me or what they label me as, I’m here to do whatever they need, whatever they want me to do to help this team win. I came in here and kind of knew that, I was moved around here and there, and that’s the same agenda as this year, then that’s fine with me, I just want to be out there helping the team win.”
With no timetable for Gronkowski’s return, the tight ends on the Patriots roster will have to be prepared to play substantial time this season.
“We have the same mentality no matter what the situation, injury or whatever else may happen,” said Hoomanawanui. “Everyone is just waiting for their number to be called and it only takes one instant where that happens, with an injury or whatever it may be, so we have to prepare just like we are going to play the whole game. If you’re going to play half a game or if you’re going to play one snap you have to prepare the same, and I think we have a good group of guys that are doing just that: getting ready and having that mindset.”
“It’s cool [out], it was wet, that was my first thought, but it’s great to get back out here for sure,” he added. “With all the guys, all the new faces as there are every year in this business, in the NFL, so I’m getting out here, getting some time with them, getting the camaraderie going, all great things. You know it’s the first day, I thought we did pretty good, but we still have a long way to go.”