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Rob Gronkowski Reveals if Bill O'Brien Can Restore Patriots TE Production

By Mike D'Abate,

2023-01-27

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The legendary ex-Patriots tight end had his most productive season as a pro while being coached by O’Brien.

FOXBORO — When the New England Patriots committed north of $65 million in guaranteed money to secure the services of the two top tight ends on the 2021 free agent market, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, position was once again expected to take center stage for the Pats' offense.

Two years into their 'tight endage' reclamation project, the results have fallen far below expectations.

Still, there is hope for the future in the form of new Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien .

Having served under coach Bill Belichick from 2007-11, O’Brien helped navigate a Patriots offense, which featured ball protection, efficient running and spreading the ball to multiple pass catchers -- three skills for which the 2022 Patriots' offense was lacking.

Among the most potent weapons in his arsenal was a fearsome two-tight-end-set of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

With O’Brien as New England's primary play-caller, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined for 169 catches, 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns. They also compiled 36 receptions for 446 yards and five successful trips to the end zone during the postseason, including an appearance in Super Bowl XLVI.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Gronkowski fully endorses brining his former coach back into the Foxboro fold.

During an appearance on the “Up & Adams” show , the ex-Pats' tight end said that he loved playing for O’Brien when he was starting out his career with New England.

“I love Bill O’Brien. I loved playing for him,” Gronkowski said. “I love the energy that he brings to the table. He has that niche to get you to go out and play your best football, get you fired up, to get you to want to go out on the field and get better every single day and make big plays.”

In his first two NFL seasons, Gronkowski enjoyed notable success under O'Brien's tutelage. After a solid rookie season in 2010, the Arizona product emerged as one of the NFL’s best tight ends, catching 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2011 — all of which were career highs.

Gronkowski acknowledged O'Brien's leadership as a key factor in his development into one of the best tight ends in the history of the game.

“His football knowledge is through the roof,” Gronkowski said. I believe that he’s definitely going to restore the Patriot faithful on the offense side of the ball ... I think they’re definitely going to improve as an offense tremendously under coach O’Brien ... That’s who they needed to get to restore to back in the old day where they were at on the offensive side of the ball and they got their guy,”

With his history of success, combined with the ringing endorsement of arguably his best pupil, the 53-year-old is thought by many to be the ideal coach to find similar success with New England’s current tight-end-tandem of Henry and Smith.

Considering their underutilization in their first two seasons in Foxboro, O'Brien has his work cut out for him.

Pairing Henry alongside a prototypical ‘move’ tight end like Smith was expected to allow the Patriots to run 12-man personnel, featuring two equally potent tight end options. Combined with a sizable offensive line and a capable running game, New England was expected to excel in several play action schemes; reminiscent of O’Brien’s days of coaching Gronkowski and Hernandez.

Unfortunately, that was seldom the case. The duo only shared the field for 18.6 percent of New England’s offensive snaps in 2021, and a mere 18 percent in 2022.

To date, Henry has been the more statistically productive of the pair. He finished the 2021 season having compiled 603 yards on 50 catches with nine touchdowns. Henry’s numbers dipped a bit during his second year with the Pats.  However, he still held atop the depth chart at the position with 41 catches for 509 yards and two touchdowns.

Smith, on the other hand, has struggled throughout his two years in New England. The ex-Tennessee Titan has only been periodically phased into the passing game, while being used primarily as a blocker. As a Patriot, Smith has totaled 55 catches for 539 yards and just one touchdown over 30 games in both seasons.

While Henry and Smith are not a like-for-like replacement duo for Gronkowski and Hernandez, O'Brien's knack for scheming his tight ends open should help to unlock the potential for New England’s new tandem of ‘tight endage.’ Typically, the Pats new OC has preferred schemes which create space and mismatches for his bigger pass-catchers. As a result, such designs force the defense to acknowledge a true “run” side, while also defending multiple receiver formations. When the tight end is the furthest player out on one side of the formation, one tight end becomes a sizable pass catcher, while the other becomes a threat to carry out of the backfield, or run on a jet sweep. O’Brien, who has had notable success with this type of game planning in the past, will undoubtedly add a similar remodeling of the tight ends room to his extensive fix-it list for 2023 .

With Smith assuming the role of ‘move’ tight end, and Henry taking on the all-purpose duties of the ‘Y’, the Patriots may finally receive a proper return on investment from the 2021 offseason.

And … as Gronkowski said … they appear to have just “the guy” to get them there in Bill O’Brien.


Follow Mike D’Abate on Twitter @ mdabateNFL and Listen/Subscribe to his daily podcast: Locked On Patriots

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