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Continued: Arrest of Hernandez, surgeries for Gronkowski weaken Patriots at tight end

  • Article by: HOWARD ULMAN , AP Sports Writer
  • Last update: June 27, 2013 - 5:55 PM

In 2011, Hernandez and Gronkowski set NFL records for tight ends on one team with 169 catches, 2,237 yards receiving and 24 touchdown receptions. The old record for touchdown catches? Hernandez, Gronkowski and Alge Crumpler set that in 2010 with 18 for New England.

Now the Patriots have just two healthy tight ends who caught passes for them last season — Michael Hoomanawanui with five and Daniel Fells with four. Jake Ballard, the former New York Giant who spent all last season on injured reserve with the Patriots, could play a bigger role than either of them if he's healthy. They also have rookie free agents Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford.

The crop of free agent tight ends is meager — Dallas Clark, Chris Cooley, Kevin Boss, Randy McMichael and former Patriots David Thomas and Visanthe Shiancoe.

"I don't think Clark can stay healthy anymore. He's 34," Brandt said. "The guy Shiancoe, they cut him last year so there really doesn't, on the surface, seem like there's any tight ends out there."

He likes Ballard — "not the fastest guy in the world, but he knows how to catch the ball and he's a pretty good blocker."

Still, that's a steep drop from Hernandez, who had 175 catches for 1,956 and 18 touchdowns in the three seasons since the Patriots drafted him in 2010 in the fourth round, where he dropped because of character issues. They chose Gronkowski in the second round that year and he has 187 receptions for 2,663 yards and 38 touchdowns, plus one touchdown on the ground.

They played together in just five games last year. Hernandez missed six of the first 10 with a sprained right ankle, but still had 51 receptions. Then, Gronkowski sat out the next five with a broken left forearm before returning for limited action in the regular-season finale.

"The reason they were so successful is because it was such a matchup problem" when both were on the field, Brandt said.

Hernandez won't be there when the Patriots start the season in Buffalo on Sept. 8. Gronkowski might not, either.

But Tebow could be.

When he joined the Patriots this month, he was greeted by the tight end he threw to at Florida.

"How you doing, Tim?" Hernandez recalled saying.

He didn't know how Tebow would be used. That would be up to Belichick.

"I'm just worried about doing my job," Hernandez said, "and keep playing football."

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