It’s a difficult time to be a tight end for the New England Patriots. Aaron Hernandez is reportedly a centerpiece of a murder investigation, and Rob Gronkowski is recovering from another surgery.
It is unclear when or if either will return this season, but the three-time Super Bowl champions have plowed ahead and won before. New England currently has four other tight ends on the roster: Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui, and rookies Brandon Ford and Zach Sudfeld. But they could turn to free agency as well.
The Patriots have reportedly barred Hernandez from home-field Gillette Stadium, as he is at the heart of an investigation into the death of 27-year-old semi-pro football player and friend Odin Taylor.
No arrests have been made but Massachusetts and Rhode Island investigators have searched Hernandez’s home, and Friday issued a search warrant for a strip club Hernandez frequents, according to the Boson Herald. Conflicting reports have said Hernandez is a suspect, and that an arrest warrant for obstruction of justice charges are in the mix, but nothing has been confirmed.
Gronkowski underwent successful back surgery on Tuesday, but it is unclear if he will be ready for the start of the regular season. The 24-year-old also had several surgeries on his forearm during the offseason, and had to deal with an infection that delayed the operation on his back. NFL.com reported that Gronkowski will start the preseason on the physically unable to perform list.
Hernandez’s future beyond football could be in doubt, and Gronkowski’s back has caused him trouble since his college days at Arizona, leaving the Patriots looking up and down their roster and in free agency for replacements.
Fells by far has the most experience with 92 catches 1,086 yards, and eight touchdowns in five seasons. Hoomanawanui played 16 games during his first two years in the league with the St. Louis Rams, but appeared in 14 last year with New England, catching five balls for 109 yards.
The rookies can’t be ruled out either. Hernandez and Gronkowski each had more than 40 receptions for 500-plus yards in their rookie years.
Then there is free agency. New England has roughly $9 million in cap space, but more could be freed up, depending on the status of Hernandez and Gronkowski.
Three of the biggest veteran names left on the market include tight ends Chris Cooley, Dallas Clark, and Visanthe Shiancoe.
Clark has the most playoff experience, and head coach Bill Belichick has schemed against him enough times during the 34-year-old’s career to know his value. He slowed down last year in Tampa Bay after nine years with Indianapolis, but his knowledge and leadership could be huge factors.
Cooley has reportedly said he would only play for the Washington Redskins, the club that drafted him in 2004 and who he's played for ever since.
Shiancoe could have the inside track, playing four games with New England last year. Over his nine-year career, he has 243 receptions for 2,677 yards and 27 touchdowns.