Narrowing down the biggest question facing any given NFL team during training camp can be a difficult exercise for most clubs. With the New England Patriots, it seems pretty safe to say that the biggest question mark on the roster is relatively cut and dry. With all of the offseason turmoil that this team has undergone, the tight end position remains the elephant in the locker room for the Pats.
Now obviously Rob Gronkowski’s career certainly isn’t over by any means even with his litany of surgeries and ridiculous off-field behavior. Still, the fact that he can’t seem to stay healthy is a huge concern even when he does return to the field eventually. The Aaron Hernandez issue has been hashed and rehashed again and again so let’s not relive that one. Let’s just say that losing one of those guys would hurt badly enough in one offseason, but losing both could be extremely detrimental to quarterback Tom Brady’s performance in 2013.
Tim Tebow is on the Pats to learn and develop as a quarterback, not to change into a tight end. Any notion of that is completely absurd and insulting to tight ends across the league. The one player that remains an enigma and could see a huge role this season depending on the health of Gronkowski is Jake Ballard
Ballard was a member of the New York Giants prior to joining the Pats last offseason, and he could prove to be a valuable weapon in their complex passing attack that features the tight ends in a big way. His career stats of 38 catches for 604 yards and four scores all took place in the 2011 season when he and the G-Men actually beat the Pats in Super Bowl XLVI. Those 14 games could be just a mere sampling of what is possible in New England, but it’s far from a guarantee that Ballard will perform for the Patriots after a torn ACL of his own that kept him out all of 2012.
The team did draft 6-foot-7 250-pound Zach Sudfeld from Nevada this April, but he is just a rookie and will be quite raw. He too dealt with a bevy of injuries during his collegiate career, but his senior year of 45 catches for 598 yards and eight touchdowns reeks of potential. The upside is certainly high, but he will have to prove himself capable of the complex route trees in New England to gain Brady’s trust right away.
Brady could potentially be without his top five receivers from a year ago when the 2013 season begins. Only Gronkowski remains on the current roster from those five players, and obviously his health is a huge question mark. Finding a consistent tight end to provide the Golden Boy with an outlet receiver is a must for New England in training camp. There ability to answer this question will be vital to their level of success or failure during the upcoming campaign.