State of the Position: Tight End

State of the Position is a new weekly Foxboro Blog feature that will examine the post-draft status of each position and take a look at what needs still need to be filled before the season opens up.

Today we will examine the tight ends.

Entering the 2010 season, the Patriots tight end position was in a total transition.

After letting Ben Watson depart as a free agent, the Pats selected two of the top-rated tight ends in the draft: Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

The rewards were immediate.

Gronkowski emerged as a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate and Hernandez was a matchup nightmare.

After missing his junior year at Arizona with a severe back injury, Gronk proved all the doubters wrong and led the team with 10 touchdowns while providing a physical presence as an in-line blocker.

The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder is already one of the top-five complete tight ends and will only improve with experience.

Hernandez, one of three Florida Gators drafted by the Pats in 2010, was great in the first half of the season, racking up 34 catches and 436 yards. However, a hip injury prevented him from making a big impact the rest of the way.

The two youngsters had a great role model to look up to in veteran Alge Crumpler. The former Pro Bowler was one of the team’s leaders and a devastating blocker in the run game. While he is long in the tooth, he is a stabilizing presence for the team’s young trio of tight ends.

The fourth tight end on the roster, and perhaps Crumpler’s replacement is rookie Lee Smith.

Like Gronk, Smith has tremendous size at 6-foot-6, 269 pounds, and was regarded as the best blocking tight end in the 2011 class.

I expect Smith to make the roster and carve out a role in short yardage and goal line packages.

Overall, tight end might have been the team’s biggest strength last year, and it has only gotten better with the addition of Smith.

Crumpler will probably finish out his career next season, but Smith will be a more than capable replacement as Hernandez and Gronk form a potentially unstoppable pass-catching tandem.

State of the Position Grade: A