The New England Patriots might have to revamp their tight end position entering 2017 if TE Martellus Bennett signs with a different team in free agency, but NFL Draft analyst Mike Mayock believes that this is a great class of tight ends for teams to replenish talent.
The Patriots have oft-injured TE Rob Gronkowski as the #1 and only option on the team and they signed TE Rob Housler and FB Glenn Gronkowski to futures contracts. Bennett and FB James Develin are unrestricted free agents, TE Michael Williams is a restricted free agent, and TE Matt Lengel is an exclusive-rights free agent. All of these players could return, but there’s no question that the team needs to infuse more talent at the position.
Mayock believes the Patriots will have options at tight end throughout the draft.
“From a tight end perspective, O.J. Howard is my No. 1 tight end,” Mayock explained on his annual conference call. “I don't think he gets to the end of the first round, but he's what they [the Patriots] like. He can block. He's a really good pass receiver, he comes out of that Alabama program that they respect.
“And as you drop down and look at the other tight ends after him, there are some really good pass-catching tight ends that would be more like [Aaron] Hernandez. You start talking about David Njoku from Miami, he's an absolute freak, and he's also tough enough to learn how to block. Again, I don't know if he gets to the Patriots.”
Howard and Njoku could very well be off the board by the time New England picks at #32 overall in the first round, with Mayock telling a Giants beat writer that he believes both will come off the board in the “second half of the first round.”
“Evan Engram and Gerald Everett are two guys that are kind of the move, wide receiver/tight end that can play in the slot,” Mayock continued. “Jake Butt had an ACL [injury] at the end of his season for Michigan, but he's one of those in-line blockers. Tough guy and good enough athletically to catch the ball short and immediate.
“I mean, this is a great tight end class. You can get second-, third-round tight ends that make a lot of sense. Down the road a little bit, Michael Roberts from Toledo is a big guy that needs to block better, but he's got some pass catching skills. So I think New England's going to have a choice of a bunch of different tight ends in this draft. And they get them in the first three rounds.”
If the Patriots don’t land either Howard or Njoku in the first round, there will be other options in the second and third rounds. Engram is Mayock’s #3 tight end prospect, followed by Butt and Everett. Engram is projected to be a middle-second round prospect and his college coach believes that the Patriots would be a perfect landing spot for Engram, and would allow Engram to “flourish.”
Njoku, Engram, and Everett are all sub-240 pound tight ends and fit that Aaron Hernandez joker-type tight end role in the Patriots offense, while Howard and Butt are the in-line options. Both Butt and Everett should be available with the Patriots compensatory third round pick that they received from the Cleveland Browns.
Toledo’s Michael Roberts is an interesting name that Mayock tosses in with the second- and third-round prospects because he’s regarded as a late sixth-round option by NDS services. The 6’4, 260 pound Roberts collected 45 receptions for 533 yards and a ridiculous 16 touchdowns in 2016, and is a capable, but unpolished blocker.
Outside of these six prospects in the first three rounds, Mayock tossed out three more players that could be available in the fourth or fifth rounds.
“I think Jordan Leggett is a different conversation,” Mayock explained about Leggett being a bigger tight end that is more of a receiver. “He's about 6'5" from Clemson. He's, again, a move guy. He's out wide. Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech. Shoot, there is a kid named Adam Shaheen, a small school kid that's 277 pounds and catches the ball really well.”
Leggett (6’5, 255 pounds), Hodges (6’6, 250 pounds), and Shaheen (6’5, 275 pounds) are all bigger tight ends that fill the “receiving-type” category. They are unpolished or underutilized blockers, but they have potential and body to develop into a more complete inline tight end in the NFL.
The Patriots are likely looking for a tight end that could help back-up Gronkowski in case of injury, which makes Butt and Roberts the top early candidates for New England. If New England signs a veteran in free agency like Titans TE Anthony Fasano, don’t be surprised if the Patriots are willing to select a developmental tight end to contribute later in the season or in 2018.
Mayock explicitly stated that teams don’t have to utilize a first round draft pick to find a quality tight end, and that teams “can find a really good, viable option in the second, third, or fourth.”
Count the Patriots as a team interested in a solid contributor in the third or fourth round. If they can follow the same trajectory as Patriots 2016 fourth round pick WR Malcolm Mitchell and become a contributor down the stretch and in the postseason, then the Patriots would be thrilled.