Bill Belichick’s obsession with tight ends goes beyond his propensity to wax poetic about Mark Bavaro. He loves utilizing them and he wants great ones on his roster. That’s why he’s focused so much on the position in the draft, free agency and the trade market over the years. On Sunday, he’ll face a team that seems to like them just as much.
From 2002 through 2010, the longest the Patriots went without spending a pick in the first three rounds on a tight end was three years, and they followed that by taking Rob Gronkowski (second-round) and Aaron Hernandez (fourth) in the same draft. They made all of those tight end selections despite the fact that, of the five tight ends they took in Day 1 (using the Old Testament definition here) in a nine-year span — Daniel Graham, Benjamin Watson, David Thomas, Gronkowski, Hernandez — the only one to completely burn out was Hernandez, and that’s a different story altogether.
Even Thomas, who had the smallest on-field impact of the entire group, spent three seasons with the Pats, but Belichick’s tendency to keep throwing high picks at the position (and sign established free agents Alge Crumpler, Chris Baker and Scott Chandler while also trading for Martellus Bennett) has shown that he doesn’t consider himself set at tight end until he has the best group.
Obviously, Belichick’s strategy has worked. Though Graham and Watson posted somewhat modest receiving numbers overall in New England, they were both utilized heavily and were part of Super Bowl winning teams. Gronkowski is a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer and is already arguably the greatest to ever play the position.
If there’s another team that’s valued the tight end position the way the Patriots have, it’s the Bengals. Cincinnati won’t have Tyler Eifert on the field when the teams meet Sunday at Gillette Stadium, but the former Notre Dame tight end was a big part of a Belichickian run the Bengals made on tight ends in the draft in recent years.
In the last six drafts, no other team has focused on tight ends early the way the Bengals have. Since 2010, only three tight ends have been drafted in the first round, and two of them were taken by the Bengals: Jermaine Gresham (21st overall in 2010) and Eifert (21st overall in 2013). Cincinnati also took Tyler Kroft in the third round in 2015, making them the only team since 2010 to spend three picks in the first three rounds on tight ends.
Cincinnati’s investments haven’t paid off the way Belichick’s did. The Bengals would obviously like to have the Gresham pick back given that the second tight end taken in that draft was Gronkowski, but Gresham was a two-time Pro Bowl selection in his five-year stay in Cincinnati before leaving for Arizona as a free agent.
After suffering a season-ending injury in Week 1 of the 2014 season, Eifert proved last season that he’s a stud in the red zone when healthy. His 13 touchdown grabs were tops among NFL tight ends, even though his 615 receiving yards placed 12th.
The “when healthy” part has remained a major issue for Eifert, however, as he has suffered injuries throughout his career and has not played a game this season. His most recent ailment is a back issue that was suffered last week. In his place, 2015 fifth-rounder C.J. Uzomah has inherited his targets (16 receptions for 187 yards and no touchdowns), while Kroft has caught six passes for 64 yards with no touchdowns.
It helps that the Bengals have one of the best outside receivers on the planet in A.J. Green, but Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis probably used those picks hoping they would cultivate the kind of success at tight end that the Patriots have for years.