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July 27. 2013 3:22PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: TE field crowded with talent

About midway through practice on Saturday morning, the second day of training camp, onto the fields behind Gillette Stadium wearing shorts and a T-shirt walked Wally Pipp.

Whoops. Pipp's been dead for 46 years. Turns out it was Rob Gronkowski.

But they could be one in the same, really. At least according to Bill Belichick.

Pipp, as those old enough to remember 1925 can attest, was the Yankees' everyday first baseman for a decade - until he was removed from New York's lineup one June day, never to return. Into his place went Lou Gehrig and, though it was supposed to be temporary, the 21-year-old upstart so effectively seized upon the opportunity that he didn't come out of the lineup for 2,130 games.

And that's why, with Gronkowski still recovering from offseason back surgery and Aaron Hernandez in prison on murder charges, Belichick invoked Pipp's name when the topic of Saturday's early morning press conference turned to the Patriots' tight end situation.

"I don't want to say this is Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig, but that's the classic story," said the coach. "We've all gotten opportunities because of one reason or another, of something that happened to somebody who was in front of us and being able to take advantage of those opportunities is. It's there if they can do it."

The opportunity is there because with Hernandez having been released and Gronkowski potentially going to begin the regular season on the physically unable to perform list - meaning he'd miss at least the first six games - New England needs someone to play the position that those two 2010 draft picks had helped transform into a focal point of the offense.

And while none of their potential replacements should be expected to present the sheer matchup problems that a healthy Gronkowski does, or run with the open-field elusiveness that Hernandez did, Belichick indicated Saturday a belief that the group is still capable of being productive. Even if it is likely to require a change in what the Patriots' attack asks of its tight ends.

In terms of experience, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui would seem to have the inside track on playing time, given that both played for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in New England last year - when Gronkowski and Hernandez both missed chunks of the season with injury.

Hoomanawanui was deployed primarily as a blocker, even as a fullback in certain sets, though Fells is more likely to be incorporated in the passing game. He caught 41 passes for St. Louis in 2010, and scored eight touchdowns in the three seasons preceding his arrival in Foxborough.

"He had a good spring, looks like he's in good condition," Belichick said. "I'm sure that he's looking to build on his spring here in training camp, and I feel the same way."

The most intriguing - and highest ceiling - option among the veterans is Jake Ballard, who the Patriots scooped away from the Giants prior to last season, and stashed him on injured reserve as he recovered from knee reconstruction surgery.

Standing 6-foot-6 and weighing 260 pounds, Ballard is still just 25 years old, and in his one full season with the Giants he snagged 38 balls for 604 yards and four scores - one of which came against the Patriots. He then caught a couple balls against New England in the Super Bowl before tearing his ACL in that game, so the Pats know the type of player he can be if he fully recovers. That's why they invested in him for 13 months before he even had a chance to practice for them.

"He's a starting tight end in the National Football League. I don't think it was a big gamble," Belichick said. "He's a good player at a young age. We played against him. I think he has good, solid, physical characteristics; works hard, smart kid, he's got a good attitude, works hard on his preparation and he's worked very hard on his rehab."

If he's healthy, and Gronkowski isn't, Ballard probably projects as the Pats' starter in a single-tight end set - and after using twin TEs so frequently the past two seasons, expect to see a lot more of that look - but don't discount a contribution from rookie Zach Sudfeld, who appears to be ahead of fellow first-year man Brandon Ford.

Undrafted after scoring eight touchdowns during his senior season at Nevada, Sudfeld comes in with health questions after redshirting twice in college, but he drew rave reviews for his work catching the ball during the Patriots' minicamp, and he has good athleticism to go with his 6-foot, 7-inch frame. In terms of locking up a roster spot, and potentially game action, he also has the advantage of having a lot of reps in the spring workouts - and seizing on the opportunity.

"They've certainly taken advantage of the reps they've gotten," Belichick said of Sudfeld and Hoomanawanui particularly - and that'll be the key if there is indeed an Iron Horse among the group.
- - - - - -
TIM TEBOW didn't work out with the tight ends Saturday. A day after catching a pass from Tom Brady and working through a light tackling drill, he spent his time exclusively as a quarterback.

It remains to be seen if the Patriots try Tebow somewhere other than behind center - and if Friday was merely a way of changing the conversation. Think about it: So much of the focus surrounding the franchise had been on Hernandez and that investigation, but the moment Tebow caught the ball, Twitter lit up and there was a new (old) narrative. Sports radio and ESPN's debate shows had something different to kick around.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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