Some developments on the tight end front for the New England Patriots have taken place this weekend. The team has reportedly waived undrafted rookies Asa Watson and Justin Jones, signing veterans Ben Hartsock and Steve Maneri as well as undrafted rookie Terrence Miller.
Hartsock and Maneri join D.J. Williams and Michael Hoomanawanui on the depth chart behind Rob Gronkowski. In 21 combined NFL seasons, Hartsock, Maneri, Williams and “Hooman” have racked up only 83 receptions. To put that in perspective, Gronk posted 90 catches in the 2011 season alone.
Okay, so the Patriots don’t have a pass-catching threat at tight end besides Gronkowski. While this does leave the team virtually naked at the position in the event that Gronkowski gets hurt, it gives the Patriots a plethora of run-blocking specialists — the 265-pound Hartsock is a great downhill blocker, and Maneri used to play tackle earlier in his career before losing weight.
At this stage in Tom Brady’s career, the Patriots really need to have a formidable rushing attack. With a dependable ground game, Brady will have less pressure in his face, take less hits, and be able to utilize his deadly play-action passing. These signings at tight end indicate that the Patriots plan to hand the ball off a lot in 2014 to save Brady a bit while also creating a more balanced offense.
With Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and promising rookie James White, the Pats have all the pieces needed to field a top-tier rushing attack this season. If the offensive line plays anything like it did late last season, there will be holes to run through. Having that extra push on the ends provided by strong run-blocking tight ends would be icing on the cake.
As for a guy who can catch, Miller has notable athleticism and could squeeze his way on to the team if he plays well in the remaining preseason games. Of the six tight ends on the Patriots roster right now, the Patriots will keep only three, possibly four. Hartsock, Maneri, Williams, and Miller will be contending for the last one or two spots on the roster.