Commentary

Pats' rookie TEs look like good fit

Draftees Gronkowski, Hernandez could be strong complements

Updated: May 5, 2010, 9:05 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the New England Patriots scouted tight end prospects in this year's NFL draft, they split them into two categories.

One category was devoted to the more traditional-style tight end, the "Y," who is powerful enough to be a steamrolling blocker but also athletic enough to be a threat in the middle of the field as a pass-catcher.

The other category was for on-the-move tight ends, the "F," who is almost receiver-like in terms of shiftiness but in turn might not be as powerful a blocker.

Aaron Hernandez
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaAaron Hernandez's shiftiness and athleticism impressed at the Patriots' rookie minicamp.

As it turns out, the team got its top-rated player at each spot, second-round draft choice Rob Gronkowski (the "Y") and fourth-round pick Aaron Hernandez (the "F"). Watching them on the field at rookie minicamp over the last two days, the possibilities look intriguing.

Gronkowski's presence is hard to miss. He's 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, and it's unusual to see a player with that body type sprinting down the middle of the field and legitimately threatening smaller defensive backs.

Meanwhile, Hernandez has a noticeable shiftiness to him. At 6-1 and 250 pounds, he's less likely to be on the line of scrimmage but could be moved around to various spots while creating a matchup dilemma for foes.

There is a long way to go before the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 12, but Gronkowski and Hernandez, at this point, appear to be nice complements. Include block-first veteran Alge Crumpler in the mix, and the Patriots will have a completely new look at the position in 2010.

Perhaps no one at this point has a better feel for Gronkowski and Hernandez than rookie quarterback Zac Robinson, a seventh-round draft choice out of Oklahoma State.

Robinson said that he's never played with a tight end who had the physical makeup of Gronkowski, who probably would have been a first-round draft choice if not for a back injury that required surgery and sidelined him for the 2009 season at Arizona.

"Physically, he has a lot of tools," Robinson said after Saturday's practice. "Anytime you have a big target like Rob, it's great to throw to. He makes plays, catches the ball really well and can run."

As for Hernandez, who some teams dropped on their draft boards because of off-field concerns that included a violation of Florida's substance testing policy, Robinson pointed to his athleticism while adding that he also catches the ball and runs well.

"Both of those guys definitely make my job a lot easier," he said.

As Robinson repeated several times Saturday, all of the team's rookies still have a long way to go, which is why Patriots coaches have drilled them on basics and fundamentals throughout this minicamp.

After stretching and agility drills Saturday morning, Gronkowski and Hernandez spent time with coaching assistant Brian Ferentz working on blocking technique. One player held a blocking pad while the other exploded out of his stance and powered forward, as Ferentz dissected their every move.

Soon after, the tight ends joined the other offensive skill-position players on a route-running drill. At one point, Gronkowski had his path purposely impeded by quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien, forcing him to adjust his route. Later in the drill, head coach Bill Belichick gave Hernandez some one-on-one tutoring.

Belichick previously made the point that Hernandez played in a Florida offense that has similarities to the Patriots', so that could help him tackle the steep learning curve for any rookie. Gronkowski, on the other hand, was more often in a stationary position at Arizona, so he'll have to adjust to some of the movements within the Patriots' scheme.

The challenge is a bit greater when considering that Gronkowski and Hernandez are both 20 years old, making them two of the younger players from this year's draft.

"I think there's still quite a bit of learning for both of those guys to do, and [they're] definitely playing against players who are a lot more skilled than what they played against in college, so that's a lot of work for all of them," Belichick said.

The work continued during a Saturday afternoon practice. The Patriots will wrap up their rookie minicamp with one more session Sunday.

There are many different things to observe on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium, but one aspect that stood out was the team's new look at tight end.

It's early yet, but the initial forecast looks promising.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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