When Bill Belichick took Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the second and fourth rounds, respectively, of the 2010 NFL draft, he changed the NFL. Over the next three seasons, the duo paired up to catch 362 passes and score 56 touchdowns. But after Hernandez was released following his arrest in June 2013 and subsequent murder conviction, the Patriots have cycled through an uninspiring group of pass catchers or run blockers in an attempt to re-create that tandem magic: Scott Chandler, Tim Wright, Jake Ballard, Fred Davis, Zach Sudfeld, Visanthe Shiancoe, Kellen Winslow, [deep breath] Daniel Fells, Matthew Mulligan, Michael Williams, Michael Hoomanawanui, Asante Cleveland, [gasping] Steve Maneri, and D.J. Williams.
That list is long and full of terrors, and none of those players has the complete skill set as a blocker and pass catcher that New England’s most recent acquisition, Martellus Bennett, does. I have a feeling we’re going to spend the next few months hearing Bennett be compared to Hernandez, but this isn’t Gronk-Hernandez 2.0. The Gronk-Hernandez combo tore up defenses as separate Y (in-line tight end) and U (move tight end) designations, but the 29-year-old Bennett gives the Patriots their first double-Y tight end combination. Now, both of their tight ends can run-block as effectively as they can run routes and catch the football.
Gronkowski regularly grades near the top of the league in run blocking among tight ends (tied for first in 2015, per Pro Football Focus), and Bennett consistently grades strongly as well. And while we know what Gronk has done as a receiver over the past four years (248 catches and 38 touchdowns, the most scores of any tight end), since 2012 Bennett hasn’t been as far behind as you might think: 263 catches (fourth among tight ends) for 2,740 yards (seventh) and 19 touchdowns (seventh).
In other words: New England’s offense is going to do some scary things this season.
Here’s the problem for defenses: How do you match up with Gronk and Bennett? Do you consider them receivers or tight ends? If you go nickel, the offensive line will have one less big body to deal with, Brady will check into a run, and Gronk and Bennett will seal off the edges to clear a path. If you stay in your base personnel to protect against the run, that means you’re matching up on Gronk and Bennett with linebackers and the Pats will be passing.
That dilemma existed for defensive coordinators with Hernandez, who was a dynamic receiver but a less-than-devastating blocker, but with Bennett, that dual threat is even more potent. He is similar to Hernandez in the passing game, but at 6-foot-6, 275 pounds, Bennett is a better in-line blocker and adds a lot more to the run game.
The Patriots vary their offensive game plans from week to week more than any other team in the NFL, in an attempt to take advantage of their opponents’ weaknesses. Bennett will allow Brady and Belichick to do what they do best: exploit matchups.
Both Bennett and Gronk are matchup nightmares for linebackers in coverage, whether it’s in man …
Or zone …
The problem extends beyond personnel, too. Even if a defense goes nickel, the Patriots can still pass. Defensive backs give up a lot of size to tight ends, and both Gronk and Bennett have the height and length to exploit a smaller cornerback or safety.
In the Gronkowski-Hernandez heyday, the Patriots would often find one defensive player to pick on. In a 2012 game against Seattle, Hernandez was matched up in man coverage with subpackage backup safety Jeron Johnson. Brady’s eyes must’ve opened wide as he motioned Hernandez out to the wing to run the iso. Easy money.
That play is something Jay Cutler and the Bears often did with Bennett in Chicago. This is from 2014: Cutler sees the look he wants, and motions Bennett out to the wing, where he’s one-on-one with safety Eric Reid.
Now just imagine Bennett in New England. He’ll be the Scott Chandler in this clip. Brady will be able to motion both Gronk and Bennett out to the wing and have his choice of which poor-sap defender he wants to attack.
Bennett wore out his welcome in Chicago: He skipped the Bears’ offseason program last year in an attempt to get a new contract, then quarreled with coaches about his use in the red zone during this past season. That’s partially why New England was able to acquire him (and a sixth-round pick) for a fourth-rounder, but if he can stay out of Belichick’s doghouse, he has a real chance to be another Patriots trade steal in the tradition of Wes Welker, Randy Moss, Aqib Talib, and LeGarrette Blount. The pairing of Bennett with Gronk will be hell to match up against.