It's no secret that Rob Gronkowski is not only a huge weapon for Tom Brady, he's also one of the best tight ends in the game just two years into his NFL career. You know, just in case his record for most receiving yards in a season by a player at that position wasn't enough of a tip-off.
Gronkowski, the team's second-round pick a year ago, ended the regular season with 90 catches for 1,327 yards and a staggering 17 touchdowns. For some perspective, during the Patriots' offensive blitzkrieg in 2007 season, wide receiver Randy Moss set an NFL record with 23 touchdown receptions. Oh, and he had just eight more catches that year than Gronkowski had in 2011.
You don't need a prototypical deep threat when your tight end is putting up those type of numbers.
But here's the thing: he's not the only big-play weapon the Pats have at the position. It's easy to forget Bristol's own Aaron Hernandez, a fourth-round pick in 2010. He hasn't had Gronkowksi's success but he has been an important part of an offense that has been without a legit big-play wide receiver this season.
Hernandez had 79 receptions for 910 yards, including seven touchdowns. And he's gone for 129 yards and 138 yards in two of the final three regular-season games. And it's the recent emergence that has put him in the elite company of Gronkowski and Wes Welker as one of Brady's go-to targets.
The Boston Globe's Greg Bedard explains:
As 2010 closed, it was evident that the coaches and Brady didn’t have total confidence in Hernandez’s grasp of the game. You could almost take it to the bank that if a team played primarily zone, Hernandez wouldn’t see the ball. He just didn’t have a feel for the dead spots in coverages where Brady would know he would be if Brady looked him off initially.
Against man coverage, the Patriots did go to Hernandez because he could let his natural playmaking ability take over.
Hernandez also couldn’t block his way out of a paper bag. Now, he can do it all. Even Hernandez’s blocking has become an asset. Give a large amount of credit to tight ends coach Brian Ferentz for the job he’s done with both of the young tight ends - especially after valuable veteran Alge Crumpler departed.
Another way to look at Hernandez's progress: he's third on the team in receiver, behind Welker and Gronkowski, but ahead of Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco.
There was much consternation at Ochocinco's glacial start to his Patriots career but as it turns out, it doesn't matter. If he developed into a down-the-field threat that would be nice but it's not imperative to New England's success. Which is great news for the Pats' tight ends, and probably something much less than that for Ochocinco once the season ends.
For now, though, New England's still playing. They've earned this week off but will host the either Denver, Pittsburgh or Cincinnati next weekend.