The New England Patriots open training camp on July 24. To get you ready, we will go through the roster position by position, highlighting the story lines, battles, and key players. We continue with the tight end position.
Rob Gronkowski is clearly the team's top tight end, but behind him, it's a bit of a mystery. The Patriots re-signed last year's backup, Michael Hoomanawanui, and brought in two notable undrafted free agents, Asa Watson and Justin Jones, to vie with D.J. Williams, who was active for two games after bouncing around on waivers from the Green Bay Packers and Jacksonville Jaguars.
Rob Gronkowski: When healthy, Gronkowski's combination of size, strength, quickness, and soft hands make him the centerpiece of the Patriots' offense. Gronkowski has also developed into one of the best in-line blocking tight ends in the league. The question will be whether his surgically repaired knee (ACL) will be back to 100 percent before the season begins.
Michael Hoomanawanui: The five-year veteran stands 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, but does not always play as big as his size. He is a sound but not dominant blocker, holding his ground without pancaking his opponents to the ground. He runs good routes over the middle but does not have the long speed to threaten a defense vertically down the seam. He has soft hands, and has caught 20 of the 26 passes thrown his direction over the past two seasons with only one drop to show for it. Hoomanawanui's versatility has helped him earn the top backup responsibilities behind Gronkowski.
D.J. Williams: Williams is more of a threat in the passing game than as a blocker, and is therefore seen as more of an H-back than a true tight end. He can help out as a blocker, but shouldn't be counted on to clear the way. At 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, he does not have the overwhelming size of some other Patriots tight ends, but he hits his top gear quickly and is effective in open space.
Asa Watson: At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Watson is undersized for the tight end position. His athleticism gives him potential in the passing game, with the long speed (4.69-second 40-yard dash) and quickness (7.00-second three-cone drill) to get open and stretch the seam. He will have to work on his blocking technique and become more natural catching the ball. The biggest question mark around Watson is a heart condition that caused him to miss the 2011 season.
Justin Jones: Justin Jones may be one of the most intriguing players to watch in camp. The 6-foot-8, 275-pound behemoth brings massive upside as a red zone threat, but he may have trouble getting open in other areas of the field; his issue is a lack of burst off the line or quickness in and out of his breaks. He is also not a sound blocking tight end just yet, but has the potential to develop in that role thanks to his frame and long arms.
1. Rob Gronkowski
2. Michael Hoomanawanui
3. D.J. Williams *
4. Asa Watson *
5. Justin Jones *
* = projected cut
For now, Williams is the front-runner for the No. 3 tight end spot due to his experience in the offense, but that's only if they decide to keep three tight ends. The offense has shifted away from the two-tight end looks of old, putting less emphasis on having a lot of depth at the position. Watson and Jones can spend a year on the practice squad to hone their skills before getting another shot to make the roster next year. Jones' size is intriguing, to say the least, but the overall skill does not jump off the page.