Have The Patriots Finally Found Their Next Great Tight End(s)?

Tight end used to be a glamor position in New England. Now, a dearth of talent over the past decade has finally given way to a promising pair of rookies. Are they destined for greatness?

Nintendo junkies know that the only reason to pick the Patriots in Tecmo Super Bowl is Marv Cook. According to this frighteningly comprehensive guide, he's the fifth-best tight end in the game, which I spent an unhealthy amount of time playing as a kid. Cook, a Patriot from 1989 to 1993, laughs about his 8-bit glory days.

"I was good in that stuff," he said.

It's funny, but it's also sad. The only place you can find a great Patriots tight end now is in old video games. When I was 12, I bought a poster of Ben Coates for my room (actually, this one). But I have to dust off my original PlayStation to relive the Coates experience. In 2000, he retired after nearly a decade as Drew Bledsoe's massive security blanket.

"I had one of the best quarterbacks to come through New England," said Coates, who spent nine years with the Patriots (1991-99) before winning a Super Bowl with the Ravens in his final season. "I've got no regrets."

Phone conversations with New England's last two Pro Bowl tight ends -- Cook in 1991 and ‘92; Coates for five years straight starting in 1994 -- didn't exactly make me long for a bygone era. But I was left wondering about what Tom Brady would be able to do with someone like Cook or Coates. Do either (or both) of the Patriots rookie tight ends, Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez, have that kind of potential? I'm not sure. But if they do, they'll make an already historically potent offense even scarier.

"It forces a defense to keep four DBs in the game, if not five," said Cook, now a high school football coach in his native Iowa. "It creates mismatches for an offense. Who do you guard? Honestly. It's almost like stealing."

Lately, the 6-foot-6, 266-pound Gronkowski has certainly looked like 6-5, 245-pound Coates (Gronkowski also wears 87, Coates' number). Last week against the Rams, the second-round pick out of Arizona scored a touchdown, dragging linebacker James Laurinaitis two yards in the process. In three preseason games, Gronkowski has seven catches for 104 yards and three scores. Not exactly Nintendo numbers, but it's early.

Then again, it won't take much to make people forget Rod Rutledge, Eric Bjornson, Jermaine Wiggins*, Christian Fauria, Cam Cleeland, Daniel Graham, Jed Weaver, Kyle Brady, David Thomas and Chris Baker, the stable of tight ends Brady has had at his disposal over the past decade. Ben Watson, the latest to go, ultimately will be remembered most for once chasing down Champ Bailey after an interception. He may have looked like a bodybuilder, but he never caught more than 49 passes in a season. The former first-round pick signed with the Browns in the offseason.

*Admittedly, I have a soft spot for Wiggins, who caught 10 passes against the Raiders in the Tuck Rule game.

Cook, for one, saw promise in Watson and Thomas, who the Patriots traded to the Saints last September. The latter, a third-round pick in the 2006 draft, caught a career-high 35 passes for New Orleans in 2009.

"I just thought those two were two of the upcoming tight ends in the NFL," Cook said. "It kind of surprised me to see that both of them aren't on the roster."

That's just how it is though, Cook added. Turnover is common in the NFL. So is new blood. Hernandez, a fourth-round pick, isn't quite as imposing as Gronkowski, but he's been productive so far. In two preseason games -- an injury kept him out last week -- the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Hernandez has seven catches for 72 yards and a touchdown. He also wears 85, Cook's number.

Hernandez, who set Florida's career record for tight end receptions with 111, has a way to go before he can actually be compared to Cook. But future stardom, however unlikely it seems at the moment, wouldn't be unprecedented. Cook was a third-round pick in 1989. And Coates, who went to tiny Livingstone College, was a fifth-round pick in 1991.

"I remember after three days of him being [with the team]," Cook said, "I told [then-tight end coach] Dante Scarnecchia that I'd better find a new job."

Within a few years, Coates wasn't able to sneak up on teams anymore. "No, no," said Coates, now the offensive coordinator at Ohio's Central State University. "Quite a few people knew about me."

Will people know about Gronkowski and Hernandez soon? For Brady's sake, I hope so.

It's about time the Patriots had great tight ends again. But if not, I'll always have Tecmo Super Bowl.

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