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The New England Patriots have had a remarkable run of success under Tom Brady and Bill Belichick that has been well-established and almost beaten to death at this point given their 5 Super Bowl appearances and 10 AFC East crowns since 2001. However, one of their more under-the-radar moves that has sparked their recent success the past 3 seasons was the 2010 Draft. They decided to take two tight ends in the first four rounds (and first 6 picks) in Rob Gronkowski out of Arizona and Aaron Hernandez out of Florida, an unconventional move to say the least.
The tight end combo showed a lot of promise in their respective rookie campaigns for the Patriots. They combined for over 1,000 receiving yards and 16 TDs as Brady focused more of his attention on wideouts Wes Welker and Deion Branch. He targeted his wide receivers on over 55% of his pass attempts compared to only 26% to his tight ends.
Then, in the next season, Gronkowski and Hernandez basically took over the league combining for 2,237 receiving yards and 25 total touchdowns for the 13-3 Patriots. They also helped Tom Brady throw the second most passing yards (5,235) in NFL history. Brady clearly changed his approach in this season, targeting tight ends on over 40% of his passing attempts, which was tops in the NFL by a significantly large margin as you can see below.
After a record-breaking season for the Patriots offense, they looked to build on the same successful formula in 2012 but had to deal with injuries that sidelined Gronkowski and Hernandez for a combined 9 games. Brady was then forced to rely on receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd with the bulk of his targets. That being said, Brady’s 28.35% target rate to tight ends was still 3rd in the NFL that season.
Now, looking ahead to 2013, the Patriots offense is totally in flux. They still have Mr. Bundchen behind center, but they lost the perennial 100-catch Wes Welker to Eli’s big brother in Denver, even though they may have found a younger and possibly just as effective replacement in Danny Amendola. The bigger question mark now, however, is that tight end position with Gronkowski seemingly getting a new surgery every week and Aaron Hernandez off the team due to legal issues (to put it lightly). Over the past three seasons, since Hernandez and Gronkowski have been in the league, Brady has targeted tight ends more than any other QB in the NFL.
Obviously, Brady has worked magic before in his career with a lack of big-name weapons, including having players such as Reche Caldwell and David Givens lead the team in receiving in both 2006 and 2004 respectively, both division-winning years. However, this year, without Welker and especially without one and possibly two of his tight ends, it may be his biggest challenge to date.