Though the injured Rob Gronkowski is truly irreplaceable in the New England offense, a leading candidate for his vacant Week 1 starting tight end spot emerged during the Patriots' training camp.
And his name is -- Zach Sudfeld, an undrafted rookie free agent. Sudfeld, a 6'7'', 260-pound tight end, has made a lot of noise since training camp began.
If you are not a New Englander or a die-hard football fanatic, you have probably not heard of him until now. Don’t beat yourself up, almost no one knew of him in July.
This 24-year-old mountain of a man played at the University of Nevada, and signed with the Patriots in May as an undrafted free agent. Since then, his position on the New England depth chart has been on the rise.
Sudfeld had an underwhelming college career, with the exception of his senior season at Nevada. He redshirted in 2007, missed all of 2008 with multiple shoulder surgeries, a knee surgery, and a wrist fracture, sat the bench in ’09 and ’10, and missed almost the entire ’11 season after suffering a leg fracture in the season opener.
Maturity and health finally aligned for Sudfeld during his senior year. He pulled down 45 receptions for 598 yards and eight receiving touchdowns in his first complete college season. He capped off his college career by pulling down two touchdown receptions on Arizona during the New Mexico Bowl.
Despite his impressive Pro Day (4.71 second 40-yard dash, 4.48 second short shuttle), Sudfeld went undrafted primarily due to a small sample size of productivity, and an extensive injury history. He signed with the Patriots on May 4, and only received a small signing bonus ($12,000).
Sudfeld has made the most of his opportunity throughout training camp, and has made New England news on a daily basis. He has been running with the first-team for the majority of camp, and making big plays and TDs part of his daily camp routine. Much of the time, he has been playing from the wing/flex tight end position. It did not take long for the New England fans to begin calling him “Studfeld” and “Baby Gronk.”
Head coach Bill Belichick gave the young tight end some praise. “He’s worked hard,” Belichick said. “Zach’s worked hard to learn our offense. It’s a little different than what they did at Nevada. He’s a smart kid and he’s got some skill. He’s been very diligent in his preparation. He’s been out there almost every day out there practicing.”
In the first preseason game against the Eagles, Sudfeld had the second highest snap count with the first-team offense. Seven of his nine snaps were played from the wing/flex position. His lone reception was a 22-yard TD thrown by Tim “The Chosen One” Tebow. He also made a key downfield block during LeGarrette Blount’s career highlight reel 51-yard gallop to the end zone.
Sudfeld turned more heads on Friday night during the second preseason game against Tampa. Sudfeld scored 22-yard TD with a ball-juggling acrobatic catch in double coverage. Then, he capped off the night with a jump ball two-point conversion from the miraculously healed (read: sarcasm) Tom Brady.
With Gronkowski still on the active Physically Unable To Perform list (PUP), and with the possibly of being placed on the reserve PUP list, Sudfeld has a shot of being New England's No. 1 tight end in Week 1. This is nothing less than a twist of fate for the 24-year-old considering Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Michael Hoomanawanui, Daniel Fells, and Jake Ballard were all active and above him on the depth charts when he signed to New England in early May.
Despite Sudfeld’s impress size and Gronkowski-like body frame, he is not nearly as impressive of a runner-blocker as Gronkowski. Because of this, he will likely be moved to the H-back/wing position permanently once Gronkowski returns. If he remains in good health, this long, curly-haired tower with a nose for the ball could be very productive for the Pat’s offense from Hernandez’s old position.
If you are fantasy owner who is interested in Sudfeld, try to temper your excitement for now, and not go all-in on the rookie. If he enters the season unscathed, he could easily be the Patriots' starting TE for one to six weeks.
However, when Gronkowski returns, Sudfeld will likely be demoted to the H-back position, and receive an even smaller portion of the targets. Sudfeld is barely a top-20 fantasy TE at this point, but has a lot of upside. It would be wise to draft him as your TE2 in the last two rounds of fantasy drafts.