FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – There have been times when the New England Patriots have had some of the best tight ends in the NFL, receivers who could block and go down field to catch passes. But Ben Coates and Russ Francis are now just dim memories.

Tom Brady, the most prolific passer in team history and one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL, never has had the good fortune of throwing to great tight ends.

Since taking the starting role in 2001, his tight ends have included Jermaine Wiggins, Kyle Brady, Christian Fauria, Daniel Graham, Benjamin Watson and David Thomas. Of those, only Watson could be considered a true receiving threat (unless you consider linebacker Mike Vrabel, who caught eight touchdown passes in goal-line situations) and he never quite reached his potential, which is why he’s no longer on the team.

This year, Brady might have some new threats.

The Patriots drafted two tight ends — Rob Gronkowski from Arizona in the second round and Aaron Hernandez from Florida in the fourth — and both have been impressive. Gronkowski, a hulking 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, caught eight passes in the preseason (averaging 13.6 yards per catch) with four touchdowns. Hernandez (6-1, 245) caught seven passes (averaging 10.3 yards) with one TD.

New England also signed veteran Alge Crumpler (6-2, 275) and while he’s primarily a blocker, he’s been a great teacher for the rookies. Crumpler, who caught 65 passes for the Falcons in 2005, has averaged 23 yards on two receptions.

“I think all three of those guys can be productive for us,” said Coach Bill Belichick. “They have been when they are on the field so far this year, so I hope that continues.”

Both rookies left college after their junior years and came to the Patriots with concerns. Gronkowski hasn’t played since his sophomore year, missing all of last year with a back injury. Hernandez, who won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end last year, had off-field issues that caused other teams to shy away.

But both can catch the ball. Hernandez caught 111 passes for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns. Gronkowski set Arizona career records for the tight end position in just two years with 75 catches for 1,197 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Coming to a team with the Patriots’ winning tradition was a little intimidating for Gronkowski.

“You’ve got to come in and be humble, be yourself, work hard and give it all you have,” he said. “You come into the locker room and (try to) gain some respect. I feel I’ve got to go out there and practice hard every day and give 100 percent. I don’t like slacking, I don’t like people looking at me thinking I’m slacking.”

The fact that all three are new to the system has drawn them closer.

“We all help each other, make sure we’re doing the right thing,” said Gronkowski. “We push ourselves to get better on and off the field, and we all help each other out in study.”

Crumpler, in his 10th season, has been the perfect mentor.

“He’s a very professional guy, good player, does everything right,” said Belichick. “He’s always on top of everything he’s doing. I think that’s a great example for any player — all of our players — especially the young ones that play the position he does. He’s a good example. He does things the right way

“I think those young guys have learned a lot just by watching Alge. They’ve continued to develop through the course of the spring, preseason and training camp so they are doing things a lot better than they did them at an earlier point.”

Gronkowski has learned that nothing comes easy.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” he said. “In order to do it you’ve got to be in the playbook all the time, studying all the time, learning all the time, that’s when it comes. And if you’re not doing that, it’s going to be really difficult.”

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be ontacted at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]