By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Since at least 2011, Rob Gronkowski has given the New England Patriots an incredible amount of security at the top of the tight end depth chart. … Until he gets injured. So the big question at the position has always been: When Gronk goes down, can they survive – if not perform at a high level – with the others?
The 2018 season looks about as promising as any that they will be more than just a one-man show at that position.
The Patriots enter training camp with a bit of a unique tight end situation. Gronkowski’s main issues are off the field, as they relate to his contract. But on the field, he remains one of the most dangerous skill players in the league. Looking at the team from a football standpoint, the players behind Gronkowski on the tight end depth chart will never be able to approach his combination of high-end abilities. But the Patriots do have players with the potential to be legit targets for Tom Brady.
Dare I say, weapons?
Enter Jacob Hollister. The second-year tight end out of Wyoming stands at 6-foot-4 and 239 pounds, so he’s obviously big – if even a little slight for a tight end. But more promising about Hollister is that he’s started to show something on the field – most importantly, a connection with Brady.
After missing day one of Patriots mandatory minicamp, Hollister shot out of a cannon on day 2, catching everything thrown his way – frequently with Brady delivering the ball. He made one particularly eye-popping leap to catch it over the middle on a seam play, reeled in a couple other deep balls, and made another catch with safety Duron Harmon draped over him. Not that Harmon is an All-Pro, but there’s something to be said about fighting to win the ball and making contested catches. Hollister’s stock rose as much as anyone on the team in the three days, despite practicing for only two.
Hollister will never be the blocker that Gronkowski is, but it’s more important that he can be a reliable secondary option in the passing game. Perhaps Josh McDaniels can put together more two-tight-end sets with that pair on the field, perhaps with both splitting out wide in some situations. Gronk’s presence will certainly open things up for Hollister, and if the latter can continue his upward trajectory into becoming a target in real games, he could make coverage life easier for No. 87 as well.
That’s not to say any of this is definitive. We all remember (forget?) the Zach Sudfeld “era” in the 2013 preseason. There’s no guarantee that Hollister’s strong minicamp will even translate to a good July, let alone a prominent place on the 53-man roster. But there’s no denying that the kid looked good in June.
Fighting For The Ball
Gronkowski and Hollister weren’t the only tight ends turning heads in the passing game during minicamp. Newcomer Troy Niklas got involved at times, and absolutely towered over everyone with his Gronk-like 6-foot-6 frame. Hollister ultimately looked more explosive, so he’ll be tough for Niklas to beat.
Dwayne Allen continues to work his tail off to get on the same page with Brady, and he looked solid in minicamp too – but his $5 million salary with no potential dead money makes him a fairly clear choice for the Patriots to eventually cut loose. As for ex-Giants tight end Will Tye, he was clearly a step behind the others in terms of making plays on offense, despite making a nifty one-handed catch in one drill.
On the line…
The Patriots frequently carried three tight ends on the active roster in 2017. When they briefly had Martellus Bennett active, they carried four. Bill Belichick will have no shortage of options when it comes to the third spot, which will likely be the tight end who can most reliably block on the right side of the offensive line in the running game, or when Gronk is running out for a catch.
Seventh-round pick Ryan Izzo out of Florida State will get a look. Undrafted free agent Shane Wimann is also in the mix. Allen showed slight improvement in that department down the stretch of 2017, but nonetheless turned in an underwhelming first season. Ultimately, it may be Niklas who ends up the lead dog for these duties. The rest will be cut or moved to the practice squad before the season.
Projected Depth Chart
1. Rob Gronkowski
2. Jacob Hollister
3. Troy Niklas
4. Ryan Izzo (practice squad)
5. Shane Wimann (practice squad)
6. Dwayne Allen (cut)
7. Will Tye (cut)
Really going out on a limb, here, but Gronkowski will have yet another All-Pro season with 10-plus touchdowns. He’ll stay reasonably healthy again, too, which is probably the bolder prediction. … Hollister will seize the No. 2 role and catch 30-40 passes with 400-600 yards and 4-6 touchdowns as the backup, with a couple of big games in those rare weeks when Gronk is kept in check. … Allen will get a fair shot at making the roster, but will not survive the final cutdown as the Pats save $5 million by releasing him. Tye will join him on the chopping block. … Niklas will be the No. 3 option and occasionally be active when the gameplans call for it. He’ll even mix in a catch here and there, perhaps a TD on a Nate Solder-esque trick play. … Either Izzo or Wimann will be relegated to the practice squad.
There’s some sneaky depth behind Gronkowski this year. It could mitigate the lack of top-end talent at wide receiver, and suddenly turn the undrafted Hollister into Belichick’s next great value on offense. The battle behind Gronk may not have a sure thing behind him, but that makes it one of the more intriguing roster competitions to follow when the Patriots hit the practice fields once again.
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 email@example.com.