COMMENTARY| It's increasingly likely the New England Patriots will need help at tight end this season, as bad news about stars Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez continues to mount. Although not having them available would be a huge blow, the team has a surprising option emerging who may step forward.
Gronkowski, who is a two-time Pro Bowler, has undergone five surgical procedures on his arm and back in the past year. After his most recent back surgery, it was announced he will start training camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. His availability for the start of the regular season is now up in the air.
Hernandez, who made the Pro Bowl in 2011, is the other half of the productive duo. He is under heavy scrutiny for alleged connections to a number of violent incidents, including being investigated for his possible role in a homicide. Depending on how these criminal inquiries play out, Hernandez could face anything from a suspension from the NFL to considerable jail time.
Gronkowski and Hernandez have both been integral parts of the Patriots' offense since they were drafted in 2010. They combined for 106 catches, 1,273 yards and 16 touchdowns last year, despite missing 11 games between them. Needless to say, losing them for any portion of the 2013 season would create a huge void.
Lacking name recognition, tight end Zach Sudfeld may be the next unheralded player to find success in New England. Undrafted out of the University of Nevada, the 24-year-old was signed in May to help round out the Patriots' 90-man roster heading into training camp. At 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds, his imposing size is similar to Gronkowski.
The fact that Sudfeld fell out of the draft can be attributed to several factors.
Playing in the Mountain West Conference, he had just two catches for 11 yards through his junior season. His lack of playing time came from backing up future Denver Bronco's draft pick Virgil Green and missing most of the 2011 season with a leg injury. Although Sudfeld caught 45 passes for 598 yards and eight touchdowns last year, his track record is limited and didn't come at a premium football school.
Sudfeld also didn't stand out with his draft measurables. His NFL.com scouting report indicates he had a 4.71 40-yard time and 11 reps in the 225-pound bench press; numbers that don't stand out for his position.
The Patriots consistently uncover diamonds in the rough. Wide receivers Troy Brown, David Givens and Julian Edelman; quarterback Matt Cassel; and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis all went from unsung to valuable players during their time with the Patriots. Sudfeld could be the next to join that group.
NESN.com reported the rookie looked outstanding during recent OTAs, even doing some work with the first team. A string of impressive catches showed he has a strong rapport with quarterback Tom Brady and a solid grasp of the offense.
While Sudfeld's pass-catching skills appear to be on point, ESPN Boston acknowledged that the team won't be able to gauge his blocking skills until pads are put on during training camp. New England tight ends play an important role in its blocking schemes, so if the rookie can prove himself in that area, he will truly be a viable option.
NESN.com's Doug Kyed wrote that Sudfeld is known as an adequate blocker, who also has experience lining up all over the field. This is exactly what the Patriots like to do with their tight ends.
Obviously, the Patriots would prefer to have the experienced Gronkowski and Hernandez both available for the entirety of the upcoming season. With circumstances making that increasingly less likely, the team will need another option. Although you may not have heard of him before, Zach Sudfeld looks like he could be surprisingly effective and a dark horse candidate as a replacement.
In addition to the Yahoo! Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports. He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter @historianandrew
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