In the 50-plus year history of
the New England Patriots, you can count on Mickey Mouse’s hand the
number of standout tight ends in team history.
That’s what makes the tandem
of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez these last two seasons more
improbable for the Patriots. The duo has combined for 184 receptions
for 2,332 and 31 touchdowns in only 26 games.
Over a decade before both
Gronkowski and Hernandez were even born, manning the tight end position
like no other Patriot before him was the incomparable Russ Francis.
During a 1976 Monday Night Football game in Pittsburg, Francis caught
six passes for 139 yards. He was then dubbed an “All World Tight End”
by commentator Howard Cosell.
After the Patriots drafted the
6-foot-6, 242-pound Francis in the first round (16th overall) in 1975,
he began his pro career starting 11 of his first 14 games. He was
second in receiving on the team as a rookie with 35 catches for 636
yards and four touchdowns and was named to the UPI and Football Digest
all-rookie teams. He caught passes in his first 13 games as a pro.
After eight seasons in a
Patriots uniform, he’s ranks 14th on the team’s all-time receiving list
with 207 catches for 3,157 yards, second behind only Ben Coates for
tight ends. He’s eighth on the all-time list with 28 touchdowns and
tenth all-time with a career 15.3 yards per catch. He had three
100-yard receiving games.
TE Russ Francis vs Broncos at Foxboro Stadium 11/28/1976 (Focus on
Francis was selected to three
straight Pro Bowls from 1977 to 1979. He led the Patriots in receiving
in 1978 with 39 catches for 543 yards and four touchdowns.
Francis also came up big in
the playoffs. During the 1976 Divisional game against the Raiders,
Francis had four catches for 96 yards and one touchdown to lead the
team and during the 1978 Divisional game against Houston, Francis
caught eight passes for 101 yards and one touchdown.
Francis retired from the
Patriots in 1994 and was selected to the Patriots 35th Anniversary
Team. The following year in 1989, the Patriots selected little-known
tight end Marv Cook from Iowa in the third round (63rd overall) to take
over the position from Francis. Cook, a 6-foot-4, 234-pounder, proved
to be a solid fixture on the Patriots offense for the next five seasons.
Cook ranks 14th all-time in
team history with 210 receptions, three more than what Francis caught
in eight seasons.
Cook had 1,843 yards receiving
in his Patriots career and proved to be a reliable receiver for
quarterback Hugh Millen during both the 1991 and 1992 seasons when he
was selected to two consecutive Pro Bowls. He was also selected to the
NFL’s All-Pro team in 1991.
Cook’s contribution to the
tight end position is often overshadowed by the emergence of Ben Coates
in 1993. Cook’s tenure can be viewed as a bridge between Francis and
Coates, but this should not diminish his accomplishments with the
Aaron Hernandez #85 and Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots
celebrate a play against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on
December 6, 2010 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Patriots won 45-3.
(Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
The Patriots drafted the
6-foot-5, 245-pound Coates in the 5th round (124th overall) of 1991 NFL
Draft and he played as a special teamer for his first few seasons until
he overtook Cook for the starting job in 1993.
Coates quickly became rookie
quarterback Drew Bledsoe’s security blanket for the next 100 games.
During those nine seasons as a Patriot (105 starts), Coates became
third all-time in team history in 490 receptions (490), fourth in
receiving yards (5,471) and second in receiving touchdowns (50) – all
tops among tight ends in Patriots history. He also had nine 100-yard
In 1994, Coates set a
single-season record for receptions by a tight end with 96 (now tied
for third) and still holds the franchise record for receptions by a
tight end. He also led the team in touchdown receptions for six
straight seasons between 1993 and1998 and led the team in overall
receptions five times. Coates was named to the Patriots Team of the
Century in 2000 and ranks in the top 10 all time among NFL tight ends
in career receptions, yards and touchdowns. He was selected to the
Patriots Hall of Fame in 2008.
That’s three standout tight
ends in the span of 50 years and now the Patriots have two in less than
two seasons. Hernandez, who has wide receiver speed when healthy, would
be the top receiver on most NFL teams. In 22 games, Hernandez has 86
receptions for 981 yards and 11 touchdowns and two 100-yard receiving
tight end Ben Coates vs Steelers 12/13/1997 at Foxboro Stadium (Brian
Gronkowski has started setting
himself apart from Hernandez this season with his second consecutive 10
touchdown season. He’s quickly emerging as possibly the best tight end
of all-time, even better than Coates. Gronk has 98 receptions for 1,351
yards and 20 touchdowns. Coates had only 30 receptions for 266 yards
and 4 touchdowns his first two seasons.
Gronk also has reached 20
touchdowns quicker than any tight end in league history. He reached the
milestone in 26 games, passing Mike Ditka, who did it in 31 games for
the Chicago Bears.
Time will tell if Gronkowski
or Hernandez will be able to continue their production over an entire
career. It’s been a good start for the duo and it’s not too early to
compare them to the best in team history.
So enjoy these two great young
tight ends Patriots fans, because it may be another 50 years before you
see another one.
Kevin Saleeba is a frequent contributor and columnist
Insider. A former beat writer for local media, Kevin has extensive
the team and experience covering the Patriots. Share
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