Patriots take fresh look at tight end

Updated: August 16, 2010, 11:12 PM ET
By Mike Reiss |

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Hello, tight end position, and welcome back to a prominent place in the New England Patriots' offense.

This has been one of the major storylines of the first 25 practices of training camp.

Somewhat similar to 2006, when the Patriots built around the one-two tight end punch of Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson (in part a result of a receiver shortage), the position is making a comeback in the team's plans.

[+] EnlargeAlge Crumpler
AP Photo/Charles KrupaAlge Crumpler has impressed Patriots coach Bill Belichick with his hard work and professionalism.

The presence of veteran blocking bulldozer Alge Crumpler and versatile rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez has sparked the turnaround.

"We made a really concerted effort in the course of the spring and over the summer to get those guys a big part of the plan," quarterback Tom Brady said on sports radio WEEI on Monday morning. "I think what it does is create more mismatches for you. The tight end position, especially with the guys we have, it's a great group."

Brady noted that the Patriots haven't even had three tight ends on the roster in recent years, keeping just two the majority of the time. Last season, for example, it was just Watson and Chris Baker.

In Thursday's preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints, the Patriots' tight end integration was easy to see. No offensive skill-position player was on the field more than Hernandez (57 snaps), as he lined up in the slot as a receiver, was on the line of scrimmage as a blocker and was sent in motion; he remains an option to pair with a running back in the offensive backfield.

Moving Hernandez around like that creates some of those favorable mismatches Brady refers to, putting stress on the defense.

The massive Gronkowski (45 snaps) was next in line on the play-time chart, and while there were a few blocking hiccups that could be explained by his needing to get his timing back after missing a year of football with a back injury, he looks like the team's most powerful young blocking tight end since Graham was selected in the 2002 first round.

Add in Crumpler, a 10-year veteran, and it's a completely new group from 2009, as the Patriots are the only team in the NFL not to return a tight end from last season. Belichick said on WEEI on Monday afternoon that he likes that the tight ends have not missed any practices and haven't repeated errors, which is important because the position is a challenge to learn in the team's offense, as they are intensely involved in all plays -- run and pass.

"There's no play off for a tight end; he's right in the middle of the action on everything," he said. A preview of that was seen Thursday against the Saints when the Patriots played all three tight ends on eight snaps, while going with two tight ends for 32 other snaps.

Since 2007, the Patriots have run a majority of their positional groupings with three wide receivers, so this was a noticeable change. While they are sure to still flood the field with receivers at times because of their lethal weaponry in that area, they appear more equipped to go to heavier, compact packages featuring tight ends more regularly when they so desire.

That's the time to shine for Crumpler, who figures to be draw media attention Tuesday in his return to Atlanta, where he spent the first seven years of his career. An unheralded free-agent signing this offseason, Crumpler's presence has been nothing but positive according to coaches and players.

"He's very professional, very professional," Belichick said, repeating the words for impact. "Preparation, understanding the big picture, not just his position, not only what's going on offensively, but the whole team -- he's into everything."

It caught Belichick's eye how Crumpler, after exiting the preseason opener following the first two series, was still an active participant on the sideline.

"Over there in the middle of the fourth quarter, he's still thinking about the game just as if he could be in the next play, which is the way to do it," he said. "I think his whole attitude is good. He's very helpful with the young players."

Belichick also pointed out Crumpler's work ethic and how he finishes plays in practice, such as catching the ball and running 20 yards after making the grab.

"I've been very impressed with him. He really handles himself like a pro, and he's a great example for any younger player. Or any of us really," he said.

Crumpler downplayed his return to Atlanta, where he makes his year-round home and where his tenure with the Falcons didn't end on a high note, his frustration over the Bobby Petrino hire-and-resign mess boiling over at times.

When new general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith arrived on the scene, Crumpler wasn't part of their rebuilding plan. He landed in Tennessee, where he spent the past two seasons opening holes for the dynamic Chris Johnson as an at-times dominant blocking tight end.

Crumpler had returned to Atlanta for a preseason game with the Titans, so this trip doesn't have much of a nostalgic feel for him.

"I just enjoyed my growth in that organization, from being a rookie tight end starving to learn under Dan Reeves' tutelage and then growing into a Pro Bowl player, I had some wonderful years in Atlanta," he said. "It taught me how to be a professional more than anything, and it's what I'm still striving for this late in my career."

Now Crumpler returns to those roots, just as the Patriots' offense does the same.

The tight end is back.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter