Saying the New England Patriots love their tight ends is understated. It is an implied truth. Like saying Mitt Romney will be wearing a red tie and Barack Obama will wear a blue tie at the next debate, it is just the way it is going to be. The Patriots’ use of their tight ends, particularly Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez however, is no symbolic gesture; their offense is functions because of the talent at the tight end position.
Think of the Patriots’ other skill players: Tom Brady is certainly elite, but are wide receivers Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch, and Wes Welker the best three in football? They are good, but not “the best” by a long shot. Are Stephen Ridley and Brandon Bolden the best one-two punch at running back in the NFL? Please. So how are the Patriots still one of the most prolific offenses in football? Gronkowski and Hernandez.
In 2011, Brady completed 42% of his passes to Gronkowski and Hernandez. Read it again. Nearly half of his passes went to these two tight ends. Why? They are positively two of the best tight ends in the league. Built like linebackers with the speed of wideouts, they are too physical for a safety to cover them and too fast for a linebacker. They are weapons on their merits (2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2011), but make just as much of an impact in how teams must account for them. Do you play in nickel and dime packages all game? You risk getting burned by the run. Play in a standard defensive alignment? You risk big a big play from the tight ends.
Remember back to last January’s playoff game when the Denver Broncos were in a nickel defense for much of the game. The Patriots were able to exploit their strengths to the extent that using Hernandez as a running back proved to be successful, passing attack notwithstanding.
Pardon the heaping of praises on the opponent, but here is your takeaway Broncos fans: The Broncos have the tools to have a similar passing attack. Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen are no Gronkowski and Hernandez, but both are effective enough to create mismatches and open up space for an efficient, workman-like Willis McGahee running attack.
Already this year, the Broncos have used a double-tight end formation to get the ball to Tamme and Dreessen at a clip of 3 touchdowns on 22 receptions. While Peyton Manning isn’t getting his tight ends as involved as Brady, the 2011 Broncos’ tight ends had 3 touchdowns on 30 receptions the entire year. With promising second-year tight end Virgil Green poised to make his return from suspension and an elite quarterback at the helm, the Broncos can further use their tight ends to supplement maturing, young wide receivers and keep defense guessing.