Versatile new trio giving Patriots tidy fix at tight end

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick rarely praises rookies. So it was noteworthy recently when he admitted similarities between the receiving and blocking ability of former Giants tight end Mark Bavaro and Pats rookie Rob Gronkowski.

Former Pats linebacker Tedy Bruschi joked earlier this year that Belichick was still looking for the next Bavaro, who was everything Belichick loves in a tight end -- great blocking skills, unflappable hands, a big red zone target and a clutch player. Bavaro, who helped the Giants win Super Bowls in 1986 and 1990 when Belichick was a New York assistant, often blocked Hall of Famers like Reggie White without any help. Belichick still marvels at Bavaro single-blocking Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks at Giants training camp in the 1980s.

Gronkowski, Hernandez and Crumpler have established winning chemistry. (Getty Images)  
Gronkowski, Hernandez and Crumpler have established winning chemistry. (Getty Images)  
Belichick noted the limits to the comparison, but in a victory Dec. 19 over Green Bay, Gronkowski single-blocked Clay Matthews, who has 12.5 sacks, on the go-ahead touchdown to the Pats' other rookie tight end, Aaron Hernandez.

It was kind of give and take that has been going on all season between Gronkowski and Hernandez. Neither is worried about their role on a given day thanks to a trust that has developed since the beginning of training camp, and some leadership from veteran Alge Crumpler.

In a statement win over Pittsburgh, Gronkowski had three touchdown catches (five catches, 72 yards overall) while Hernandez didn't have one. Pittsburgh used 5-10 nickel CB William Gay to cover Gronkowski, and the Pats took advantage of the 8-inch height discrepancy. Against San Diego, where speed and precise route running were needed, Hernandez had five catches for 54 yards and Gronkowski had just two for 10 yards and one touchdown.

"We know we have to be ready when our number is called," Hernandez said. "Some games it might be Rob, and other games it might be me."

Defeating Pittsburgh was gratifying for Gronkowski because in a disappointing loss to Cleveland the week before, Gronkowski cost the Pats a touchdown when he fumbled at the 1-yard line just before the half while trying to stretch across the goal line. He also caused a fumble on a kickoff after calling for a fair catch, which led to a Browns touchdown. Instead of shying away from the rookie, Brady embraced Gronkowksi's effort. That week they spent time watching film together and were both convinced he could have a big game against the Steelers.

It's the type of performance Belichick had been searching for from a tight end since he came to the Pats in 2000. He drafted Daniel Graham in the first round in 2002, Ben Watson in the first round in 2004 and David Thomas in the third round in 2006. Calling Graham or Watson busts would be an exaggeration, but Bavaro they were not. Graham, a top blocking tight end during his Pats tenure, never caught more than 38 passes. Watson, a better receiver then Graham, failed to help the offense with its red zone struggles. His blocking skills and route running were also questionable.

Thomas, who helped the Saints win a Super Bowl in 2009, is remembered for a boneheaded personal foul penalty that took the offense out of field goal range in a costly 2008 loss to Indianapolis. The Pats tight ends were known more for failure than success.

After letting Ben Watson and Chris Baker leave in the offseason, the Pats signed Crumpler, a 10-year veteran who had become mostly a blocking tight end after being one of Michael Vick's favorite targets in Atlanta earlier in his career.

The Pats wanted to overhaul their tight end group partly because of poor red zone performance in 2009. The Pats only scored touchdowns 52.3 percent of the time -- 13th overall. Beyond the stats were some memorable red zone collapses, none bigger than a road loss to Miami, where Tom Brady threw an interception to Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis when the Patriots had a chance to put the game away. They also failed to convert a fourth-and-1 inside the 10 in the first half of that game. This season, the Pats red zone touchdown percentage has improved to 63.9 percent (third overall).

Both tight ends were only 20 when they were drafted, and each pick had its risks. The Pats selected Gronkowski in the second round even though he missed the 2009 season because of back surgery. Hernandez, the 2009 John Mackey Award winner as the nation's best tight end with 68 catches, dropped to the fourth round because of character concerns over a history of smoking marijuana.

Gronkowski's nine touchdown catches are the most by a first-year tight end in Pats history and lead all rookie tight ends. Hernandez is second with six TD catches. They are the first pair of rookie tight ends in NFL history to have at least five TD catches each.

Crumpler, 33, is 12 years older than Hernandez and Gronkowski, who often refer to him as Crump Daddy.

"During the summer we all bonded together and I think we have a great chemistry now," Gronkowski said. "I noticed we were all going hard in the weight room, at practice helping each other out. That is when I thought we had a great group."

Along with Hernandez, Gronkowski has been his boyish self all season -- laughing and joking in the locker room with teammates. Each helped sing a part of Jingle Bells with teammates for a local television show before Christmas. After struggling to learn his part, Gronkowski received jabs from teammates for his on-camera mistakes.

Perhaps he knows Crumpler, who once told Gronkowski to avoid answering a question because of the strict media policy Belichick has for rookies -- only speaking on Fridays and then saying little if anything -- is there to help keep him out of a jam.

"He has taught us a lot -- the ins and outs of the NFL. I go to him for off-the-field issues," Gronkowski said. "Whenever we have questions we ask him. He kind of like lectures us a little. He knows how long the season is and he knows this is our first year doing it so he always gets us going, keeping us motivated."

Crump Daddy won't allow his students to hit the rookie wall.

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