INDIANAPOLIS -- Tight end is clearly a position of obvious strength in New England.
When you have a generational talent like Rob Gronkowksi he certainly makes all others on the depth chart pale in comparison.
And that's very much been the case for the Patriots in recent years as Bill Belichick has struggled to find other players at tight end to fill in behind his All-Pro talent. Potential pass catchers like Tim Wright and Scott Chandler have been disappointments. Blocking types such as Michael Hoomanawanui and Michael Williams haven't established themselves much, either.
Considering those factors, combined with the fact that Belichick has selected at least one tight end in 10 of his 16 previous drafts in New England, and it's plausible the coach could once again look to find Gronkowski some positional help this April.
While Gronkowski is the prototype of an all-around tight end – he can block like a tackle or catch like a receiver – such players are increasingly rare coming out of college at this point. Given the onslaught of the spread offenses throughout college football, guys are either generally blocking types or pass catchers, not both.
"Anymore, you don't talk about tight ends, you looking at either a 'Y' or an 'F'. You're either an in-line guy who usually lacks the skill set to be a pass catcher but is usually a tougher, overachiever that is physical at the point of attack. Then you have the guy who can flex who is essentially a big wide receiver," Cardinals GM Steve Keim said. "So the guy who can do it all, generally doesn't exist anymore. There are a few guys who can do both but very rarely. The perception around the league is that when you see these guys who are great pass catchers, people think they are functional in the run game. When you watch tape, they are really not. You see guys who at the point of attack are having a very difficult time."
Chargers GM Tom Telesco, who's seen a future Hall of Fame pass catcher produce for years in San Diego with Antonio Gates, also acknowledged the challenges of trying to find versatile tight ends in the specialized college schemes.
"Very correct," Telesco said. "Most tight ends you see are detached from the formation. With college offenses we're not seeing as many dual tight ends. The one good part is you get to see guys run and catch. But it is a position that's a little harder to find."
With Gronkowski the Patriots have the unicorn of the position. Adding either a pass-catcher or a blocker to the mix that returns Williams, Chandler and injured 2015 pick AJ Derby remains an option.
According to NFLDraftScout.com 19 tight ends are worthy of being drafted this spring, while 16 players were invited to the Combine at the position.
The top player in the class, though he may not even be a first-round pick, is actually Derby's former Razorbacks teammate Hunter Henry (6-5, 253).
Like so many of the tight end prospects in this year's class, Henry wants to prove to the NFL that he is in fact a well-rounded talent with the ability to block and catch. The reigning Mackey Award winner makes a strong case for himself out of Bret Bielema's offense that's built around the running game and the offensive line. Henry had a career-high 51 catches for 739 yards in his final junior season last fall.
"Just versatility," Henry said of his biggest strength. "I'm going to bring a dual-threat tight end that's going to put his head in there in the run game. I'm going to block. I did that in college consistently. And I'm going to create a mismatch in the passing game.
"I had the best year of my career this year. I believe I went against the best every single week in the SEC, played against some elite guys this year and the past three years. There are a lot of guys playing on Sunday that I've competed against and I've won many reps against. I believe I'm ready for the next jump."
And he believes he's both ready and worthy to indeed be a first-round pick.
"I believe the tight end is a big part of the NFL. I believe I bring something that's different than a lot of guys would bring," Henry said. "This versatility, I'm going to be able to play every down. That's something I believe. I'm going to be able to stay on the field consistently. I'm not just a first down guy. I'm not just a third down guy. I can play all three downs. It's a big part of the NFL. That's why I believe I'm worthy."
The next-best tight end on the prospect list is Stanford junior Austin Hooper (6-3, 254), another guy who can actually make a case for himself as an all-around tight end. Stanford has a history of producing NFL tight ends in recent years thanks to the importance of the position in the Cardinal pro-style offense. Hooper had 74 catches over his two seasons for Stanford, averaging better than 12.5 yards per catch.
Hooper doesn't have the elite height that's targeted among today's tight ends, but he feels like he more than makes up for that in his all-around game.
"My blocking ability, my route running ability, my catching ability, and if a team doesn't like me because I'm a quarter-inch too small then it is what it is. Hopefully another team will," Hooper said. "I have a good combination of speed and strength. I'm very physical. I grew up playing defensive line my whole life until I came to college so the physical side of the game of football isn't something that scares me in the slightest. I feel confident with my abilities and hopefully a team does too."
Hooper is certainly confident that his time playing for David Shaw at Stanford has him as prepared for the NFL as any other tight end prospect.
"I mean regarding the offense, the offense is tailored if you play tight end, you have to do a great job of blocking, you have to do a great job of running your routes, and know the way our offense work," Hooper concluded.
After Henry and Hooper being slated to go by the second round, the middle pack of the tight end class includes Ohio State's Nick Vannett (6-6, 256), Western Michigan's Tyler Higbee (6-5, 233), East Carolina's Bryce Williams (6-6, 260), South Carolina's Jerrell Adams (6-5, 244) and Harvard's Ben Braunecker (6-4, 252).
Adams is yet another Gamecocks prospect disappointed by how last season played out due to issues at the quarterback position as well as the mid-year retirement of Steve Spurrier. Adams had just 28 catches for 421 yards and three scores with a 15-yard average. He drew rave reviews at the Senior Bowl, especially for showing that he might be more of an option to block than many had previously presumed.
"I thought I had a good week down there," Adams said. "I think I raised my stock a little bit. A lot of scouts said I had a great week down there. A lot of coaches said they didn't think I was as tough as I was that I could hold a block as long as I could. I felt like I had a great week down there."
He hopes to convince teams that he brings a lot to the table, even if his senior season didn't play out the way he'd hoped it might.
"I feel like I'm a great teammate, a great leader, very coachable. I just play hard, give it 100 percent in everything I do," Adams said. "I just tell them I am what I put on film. I tried to make the best on what I do."
While Adams said he doesn't try to mimic any other tight ends, he does have a favorite pro.
"Gronkowski because he's a good blocker and a good catcher," Adams proclaimed.
Braunecker is everything one might expect from a Harvard man. A molecular biology major with aspirations of medical school after football, he has the confident air of a successful, well-spoken student. He also believes that balance of football and academics in the Ivy League has prepared him for the process he's currently in.
"You learn a lot about yourself when you're crushed or pulled apart both ways on the football field, and with a pretty hefty academic load," Braunecker said. "One of those things I developed from all that pressure was how to dedicate yourself to a task. I'm using that right now, because I've braved the molecular biology storm at Harvard and I've still been able to produce on the football field. So I'm confident taking away the academic part can only lead to more success."
He's certainly not expecting to be nervous when he takes the Wonderlic on Friday.
"If anything, it's a nice opportunity to flex your academic muscles a little bit."
But his brains alone won't lead him to NFL success, Braunecker must prove he has the brawn for the job as well. Given the relative lack of luster to the overall tight end draft class, he knows that may help his chances.
"I think it's definitely good for me, good for FCS guys that don't have a whole lot of publicity coming out. I can't really compete with guys that have a lot of production in the SCC or something like that, so, with how thin the class is, it really presents an opportunity for me if I show up at this event on Saturday, and tomorrow, I can jump a few spots and make a name for myself," Braunecker said. "One of my biggest goals for this week and weekend is to show that I'm athletic enough to play at the next level. That I can compare and beat the other guys in the draft class. So the drills are definitely important to me from that aspect."
Among some of the notable names expected to be later-round picks on draft weekend are South Carolina State's Temarrick Hemingway (6-4, 244), Texas-San Antonio's David Morgan II (6-4, 262), North Carolina State's David Grinnage (6-5, 265), Florida's Jake McGee (6-5, 252) and Virginia Tech's Ryan Malleck (6-4, 256).
Hemingway is a confident player from smaller school. He knows his biggest strength is speed – what he describes as "an unlimited amount of speed" – but that he still has a lot to make up against higher prospects from bigger programs.
"Coming from a small school you have a chip on your shoulder because you have a lot to prove to everybody that doesn't know you," Hemingway said. "I'm pretty much a nobody cause nobody knows who I am. I have a lot to prove."
Though he was hesitant to make the self-comparison, Hemingway admitted he watches a lot of Gronkowski and tries to pull form the record-setting tight end's game.
"That's kind of hard to answer, but I try to model myself after Gronk," Hemingway said. "But he's so good at what he does it's kind of hard to mimic what he does. But I just try to learn from him, just from watching him play games. It's a mixture of him and [Giant] Larry Donnell, because Larry Donnell is a smaller school guy as well. So I try to take the steps he took."
He also knows that if he wants to be considered an all-around tight end like Gronkowski, he'll have to prove his blocking mettle.
"That's very important because a lot of people don't see me as a blocking tight end. I've been working on that. I'm really looking forward to actually showing I can block as well as receive," Hemingway said.
Morgan, who points to versatility as his strength, is the first Combine player and likely draft pick from the UT-SA program that's only five years old.
"It's an unbelievable honor," Morgan said. "It's an honor to represent the school on this level."
McGee is another guy who thinks the Gators offense is more easily translated to the NFL than some of those guys coming from spread sets. A transfer from Virginia who likes to pattern himself after recently-retired Steeler Heath Miller, McGee caught 40-plus passes in each of his last two seasons split between the two schools.
"The goal is to be the full tight end," McGee said. "Do as much as you can and stay on the field as much as possible."
Really, all the tight ends in the 2016 draft class are trying to prove themselves in one form or fashion. They hope to show the skills, versatility and intelligence to land at a position that requires a lot out of players at the next level.
None is likely to be the next Gronkowski, but one might just find himself lining up with the New England legend as the Patriots might be in line for a little injection of youth and potential on the depth chart behind the modern-day measuring stick at the position.