FOXBOROUGH — There is no good backup plan to losing a game-changing tight end like Rob Gronkowski. The New England Patriots have learned that lesson the hard way over the past several seasons.
With Michael Hoomanawanui back for a third season with the Patriots, the top backup spot will likely go to him once again. Behind him, however, there is a compelling battle developing between undrafted rookie tight ends Asa Watson and Justin Jones.
Each one brings his own unique set of skills to the table; Watson is a smooth route-runner with solid speed, and Jones is a 6-foot-8, 275-pound behemoth with deceptive quickness.
Beyond the skills they bring to the table, they will need to learn the nuances of the Patriots offense and could help themselves by rounding out their skill sets. Fortunately for the two rookies, there is already a good support system in place for tight ends at Gillette Stadium. Gronkowski and Hoomanawanui have been with the team for a combined six years, and have learned the ways of being a tight end in the Patriots offense.
The experience, combined with the range of skills in that group, have helped the young guys get their bearings.
"All the guys in our group have different skills and different backgrounds and I can learn a lot from all the players," said Watson. "Hooman — he's a great player — Develin, [and] Gronk, everybody is a good player, so I kind of pick around and take a lot from everybody because they have something different to offer."
Gronkowski, obviously, offers a lot that other tight ends simply can't. Jones' size is as close to Gronkowski's as conceivable, and the rookie out of East Carolina is studying the All-Pro tight end for tips on how to use that size to his advantage.
"Gronk's an animal," Jones said. "He's someone that is really hard to replicate. But lucky for me, my stature is somewhat like Gronk's. Gronk does a really good job of using his body when he's coming through defenders. Guys try to get a jam on him [but] that doesn't really phase him too often. He's done a really good job with his forearm and his injuries, still using his near arm and stuff, shaking off defenders, and getting open at the top of his routes.
"A lot of times, it just comes to using our bodies and using a little bit of a box-out and post-up when we turn around and stuff like that. Then in the red zone, you know, Gronk's a monster, so something that you get excited about is being split out. You see all the things you do with him and that's something that really impacted my decision to come here."
Their ability to run routes and catch passes will be valuable to a Patriots offense that often relies on its receivers getting open over the middle. Both men reiterated that as pass-catchers, head coach Bill Belichick says they have two jobs: get open, and catch the ball. However, they both know that they won't make the roster based on pass-catching alone, and they must round out their skill sets to be ready to help the team in any way possible.
"Blocking is just as important as catching in this offense," Watson said. "Coach Belichick says your job as a receiver is to get open and catch the ball, but also when you're on the line you have to block as well. Both jobs are equally important."
If only it were good enough to do it once and call it a day, Watson and Jones may already be on their way to superstardom. Both men have flashed the ability to be effective receivers, shaking free of defenders and catching the ball away from their frame.
Unfortunately, along with learning all the skills they will need to be successful, they also have to learn to do them time after time without a hitch.
"I think I just need to get better at being a little more consistent," Jones said. "I run a good route here and there, and we go in the film [room], we correct the things that you do wrong, and the best thing to do is just translate it onto the field from film. That's something that coach Belichick always emphasizes: taking it from the classroom to the field, and being consistent. Don't mess up the same thing twice."
Gronkowski is dripping with talent, but also with knowledge of the Patriots offense and of quarterback Tom Brady. If Jones and Watson can be a sponge and soak up even a little of that knowledge, either could quickly become a very valuable piece to the Patriots' thin depth chart at tight end.