By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Everyone knows and acknowledges who the Patriots turn to at tight end, even the Patriots. Rob Gronkowski has been a beast in his first two days of practicing with the team at mandatory minicamp, and he’s had fun while doing it. At the same time, the All-Pro tight end is setting the bar for the rest of his teammates at the position. The question becomes how much the others can show what they bring to the crowded table.
And those other seats at the table, alongside Gronkowski in the big boy chair, are where things get dicey. Though Gronk remains a dominant player when on the field, the specter of injury will always hang over him due to his overtly physical playing style. It has always behooved the Patriots to have a viable option after Gronkowski on the depth chart; the presence of Martellus Bennett in 2016 was a major reason why the offense barely skipped a beat en route to a win in Super Bowl LI with Gronk sidelined.
Fortunately, for the team, there appears to be a legitimate battle percolating among the rest of the tight ends. They’ve all looked focused and competitive during team drills, all likely knowing that their spots on the roster are far from safe. Once the roster dwindles to 53, the Pats will most likely use up only two more spots between as many as six candidates entering training camp.
The competition only continued to ramp up on Wednesday, which featured the return of second-year TE Jacob Hollister after an absence on Tuesday. Hollister popped in team drills, at one point making a nice leaping catch over a defender down the right seam. He also made a catch over the middle with safety Duron Harmon draped over him, a play that drew a favorable reaction from Tom Brady.
Hollister has, by all accounts, looked good all spring and could be making the all-important jump from year one to year two, a process that Bill Belichick has championed in the past. Hollister is keeping that in mind as he continues to improve whenever he takes the field.
“Like Coach Belichick says, I think making that jump from the first to second year is something he mentioned and something I look forward to,” Hollister said, via NESN’s Doug Kyed. “I hope that he’s been seeing that in me, but I’m just trying to make strides every single day.”
Also turning heads at times is free-agent signing Troy Niklas, and that’s mainly because of his incredible size. The former Arizona Cardinal is comparable to Gronkowski in that department, standing at 6-foot-6. He’s made a handful of catches down the seam over the past two days, at times towering over defenders.
Still, Niklas really only stood out because he’s huge. Compared to Hollister, he has yet to really jump out with his pass-catching skills. If he sticks, he may be more of a strictly blocking tight end – and he wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with less of a role in the passing game.
“It’s not my job as an athlete to say whether I think I should get more catches,” Niklas said after practice. “That’s what the coaches are for. I’m just going to keep grinding and hopefully I can grind out more of a role in the passing game here. We’ll see.”
Dwayne Allen remains a curious case. One year after coming to New England in a trade with the Colts, Allen is in a spot where he needs to rebound from a strikingly down year in his first season with the Patriots. He’s been catching balls left and right, but also dropped a potential touchdown with Patrick Chung all over him in red zone drills on Wednesday.
Ultimately, it could be Allen’s $5 million salary that finds him on the chopping block if he can’t markedly out-perform Hollister or Niklas, especially considering it would cost the Patriots nothing to cut him before the 53-man roster is set. But there’s no question that Allen, who put in extra time with Brady after Tuesday’s practice, is doing all he can to make things work.
“Any time you step onto the practice field, it’s about getting better,” Allen told Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald on Wednesday. “During practice, after practice … there were obvious deficits in my game I needed to work on, so I tried to take the time to work on them, and Tom was gracious enough to help me work on those.”
Despite Gronkowski making an eye-popping touchdown catch from Brady on Wednesday, Will Tye might have actually made the play of the day at the position. After beating Chung down the left sideline, Tye made a nifty one-handed catch over his shoulder. However, Chung got his revenge late in 11-on-11 drills when he covered Tye well on a dropped pass deep down the right edge.
Seventh-round pick Ryan Izzo and undrafted free agent Shane Wimann remain longshots to make the roster at this point. Izzo fumbled twice in ball security drills on Wednesday, which can’t possibly help his case.
Still, hanging above all of these tight ends is Gronkowski. For the second straight day, he asserted himself as the most dynamic weapon on the field. He overpowered defenders to make catches, and had fun doing it, at one point high-stepping past Jordan Richards on a deep ball down the left sideline. But one subtle benefit of Gronkowski’s world-beating talent is that it forces the rest of the tight ends to do their best to get on his level.
Spoiler alert: none of them will do that. But among the backups could be a name that emerges as a reliable option underneath No. 87 on the depth chart. The 2016 season proved that the Patriots can win big games with a strong backup in place. It’s why the No. 2 tight end job will continue to be one of the most crucial roster battles to watch moving forward.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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