This scary tandem could make life easier for Jimmy Garoppolo

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·NFL columnist
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Whether it was Tom Brady or Jimmy Garoppolo, the pieces surrounding the New England Patriots’ starting quarterback swapped and shuttled in and out of positional groupings Thursday. This is every training camp for coach Bill Belichick, a few weeks when depth charts and lineups fall into a nebulous mix of tinkering and unlikelihood.

It’s a challenge figuring out where the Patriots’ roster construction is headed in July. Particularly with Garoppolo taking starting snaps and a litany of starters working back from injuries. For the next month, it’s going to be a study in fluidity. All apart from two pillars: Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett.

Jimmy Garoppolo says tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett make his life easier. (AP)
Jimmy Garoppolo (L) says tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett make his life easier. (AP)

It’s clear, after only one day of training camp, that the tight end tandem is going to be the lynchpin of the offense, every bit as important as Gronkowski and wideout Julian Edelman were last season. And with Edelman in the fold, possibly as vital (and potent) as the Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth trio was nearly 10 years ago. Add in a healthy Dion Lewis, and you might have to go all the way back to 2007 to find a more exciting quartet of offensive pieces surrounding the quarterback.

Granted, Edelman (foot) and Lewis (ACL) are on the mend now. But that’s how good Gronkowski and Bennett look together. Like two long, fluid, construction cranes parked on each end of the offensive line, each promising to create massive problems in the seams of defenses. This is looking like the best tight end tandem in the NFL and one of the league’s most difficult red zone matchups. It’ll be the key cog to getting Garoppolo through his four-game stint as starter.

“It’s awesome,” Garoppolo said of being flanked by Gronkowski and Bennett in the starting lineup. “It makes my job a whole lot easier that’s for sure. There are some big-bodied guys out there. Martellus had a nice catch today. Gronk had a couple nice ones. When you have guys like that it always makes throwing a lot easier.”

Despite Garoppolo heading into his third season in the offense, that’s still the top of the Patriots’ priorities: making his job easier. There will be an emphasis on red zone work throughout camp, in hopes of speeding up Garoppolo’s decision-making and timing. Two Pro Bowl caliber tight ends go a long way in that effort. That much could be seen on Thursday, as Garoppolo took the starting snaps in 11-on-11 drills and quickly utilized short to intermediate routes consistently to move the offense.

While his size still looks lacking compared to Brady, his edge in athleticism is as apparent as ever, giving the Patriots the ability to move the pocket and add some new offensive wrinkles. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels alluded to it earlier this week when he talked about playing to Garoppolo’s strengths, including his mobility and accuracy.

How quickly he progresses remains to be seen. But compared to last year, when it appeared Garoppolo might start the first four games, the Patriots backup said his familiarity in the offense has made a significant difference. Not just from last season, but a major leap from his rookie season in 2014.

“Compared to last year and rookie year? Compared to rookie year it’s not even close,” Garoppolo said. “But that just comes with experience, though. Three years in the same offense, same team, same organization you just get used to things and things come more naturally to you.”

Added Belichick when asked to account for the progress in his backup: “Experience, everything. It’s everything. All of the things that go into playing football: preparation, execution, knowing the opponent. We could sit here and talk about it for a day.”

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Martellus Bennett was traded to the Patriots after Three years with the Bears. (AP)

Now the Patriots have to find the right pieces to bring it out over the next few months. Getting Edelman, Lewis and Danny Amendola back on the field will help. So will getting running back LeGarrette Blount back into playing shape. And the first-team offensive line back together.

Until then, the onus will be on Gronkowski and Bennett to develop chemistry with both Garoppolo and Brady. Both had significant work with the tight ends Thursday, including a breakout session where Brady worked on his red zone timing with both. But it’s not just the quarterbacks who are fine-tuning. Gronkowski has to find a rhythm with Bennett as well – on the field and from a personality standpoint.

That latter point is no small thing, either. If there was one thing that eventually soured for Bennett with the Chicago Bears, it was the perception about his attitude and dedication. In his latter stages before the trade to the Patriots, elements of both the coaching staff and front office questioned whether he would continue to work hard without a new contract. Playing out his final season of a four-year deal, that issue hasn’t gone away despite earning $5.185 million this season. Until he signs a new deal, it’s going to be on Bennett’s mind. And he’s looking to put up a big season prior to hitting free agency next offseason. That’s something the Patriots will have to monitor. But through the offseason and early in camp, Gronkowski and Bennett have appeared to mesh. Enough so that Gronkowski believes Bennett can make him better.

“He’s a great guy to work with,” Gronkowski said. “He’s football smart. He came in, he’s picked up the playbook very well, which is super, super beneficial here in our offense, so that’s super good to see. … It’s another guy that is just super talented and wants me to push harder, too. I can take things from his game, seeing his athleticism, seeing how he gets off the ball. I can bring it into my game, use some of his routes, he can come use some of mine.”

Meanwhile, both can lift Garoppolo in the early stages of this season. And when Brady returns, give him his best set of offensive pieces in nearly a decade. That’s the hope, anyway. For now, camp has just opened and large parts of the offense have yet to take the practice field. The tinkering has begun. And Garoppolo is at the center of it.