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Colts TE Jack Doyle will “test free-agent market” and should interest Patriots

The Patriots will have a need for a tight end and the Colts tight end makes a lot of sense.

The Indianapolis Colts want to retain free agent TE Jack Doyle, but the New England Patriots should ruin their “rivals” offseason and steal away one of the top tight ends in free agency.

Doyle turns 27 in May and went undrafted out of Western Kentucky in 2013. The 6’5, 255 pound tight end landed with the Colts and their two-tight end offense. For his first three seasons in the league, Doyle toiled behind Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen and generally played when one of the starters was injured, or the Colts were in a short yardage situation. Doyle was roughly a 30% snap player over his first three years.

But the Colts paid Allen a big money contract and Fleener departed for the New Orleans Saints in 2016 free agency, opening up a door for restricted free agent Doyle to take on a larger role. The Colts retained Doyle on a 1-year deal and Doyle delivered in a major way.

In 2016, Doyle collected 59 receptions (11th in NFL for tight ends) for 584 yards (15th) and 5 touchdowns (10th), and saw his playing time spike to nearly 70% of all offensive snaps, outsnapping and outplaying Allen. Doyle recorded a catch on 78.7% of all his targets, the highest reception rate for an NFL tight end, edging out Patriots TE Martellus Bennett (75.3%; min. 25 targets).

And this comparison between Doyle and Bennett is where Patriots fans should take the free agency discussion. Bennett is regarded as the top tight end in free agency and is coming off a 55 receptions, 701 yards, 7 touchdown season. He is also likely to command a top dollar deal that might not interest the Patriots.

Doyle also “has plans to test free-agent market,” according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, spurning extension offers by the Colts front office. He will likely command a more palatable contract value.

The Colts deployed Doyle in a similar way to how the Patriots utilized Bennett by keeping him closer to the line of scrimmage. Of the 40 tight ends that recorded 20+ receptions, Bennett saw the 7th lowest average depth of reception at 5.29 yards down the field; Doyle ranked 14th at 5.86. Their fellow tight end teammates were targeted much further down the field, with Gronkowski posting the deepest average reception at 12.24 yards down the field, and Allen holding the 6th deepest depth of reception at 8.57 yards down the field.

In other words, the Colts and Patriots both had a deep ball tight end and a short ball tight end. Doyle and Bennett are both the short ball tight ends. So why couldn’t Doyle slip into the same role in New England?

Doyle does not come with the same acclaim as Bennett, who was regarded as a potential top five and definite top ten tight end in the NFL. Bennett enters free agency with that same distinction. Doyle is regarded as a complementary tight end, not a centerpiece, and will command a deal in the $4-6 million per season range.

To understand how the Patriots will, or should, approach Doyle requires an understanding of how the Patriots approach free agency. This is not as simple as saying, “screw Bennett, let’s get Doyle.”

The Patriots have tiers of free agents and budgets within each of those tiers. Last year, the Patriots wanted to improve their wide receivers and showed interest in Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Travis Benjamin, Rishard Matthews, and Chris Hogan. Jones was considered a fringe #1 receiver, but the other receivers were viewed as solid #2 receivers.

Head coach Bill Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio assign certain amounts of cap space for particular players. With Jones, the Patriots were in the running until he ultimately signed the 18th largest annual receiver contract with the Lions. For the Patriots to be in consideration, they needed to at least have an offer on the table in the same ballpark as the $8 million per year deal that Jones signed.

Sanu, Benjamin, Matthews, and Hogan saw various degrees of interest, but all exceeded the money that the Patriots allocate for #2 receiver contracts. Since WR Julian Edelman ($4.25 million per year) and WR Danny Amendola ($4.05 million per year) featured similar contract values, it stands to reason that the Patriots wouldn’t offer much more than $4.25 million per season for these perceived #2 receivers.

Hogan ultimately signed a deal with the Patriots worth $4.00 million per year.

To sum the above points, let’s say the Patriots theoretically assigned $7 million per year to a fringe #1 receiver and $4 million per year to a #2 receiver. Jones exceeded the Patriots contract allocation, and so the team turned focus to the #2 receivers, until they found a receiver willing to sign a contract inside the money range.

This relates back to Bennett and Doyle because we can consider Bennett a fringe #1 tight end and Doyle a #2 tight end. The Patriots could have a deal on the table for Bennett for $7 million per year, but then also have a deal for Doyle at $4 million per year. If Bennett lands elsewhere, then the Patriots can shift their focus to Doyle.

And if Doyle receives an offer for $5 million by some other team and ignores the Patriots, well, then Belichick and company will look to Texans TE Ryan Griffin at the $4 million range, or further down to Titans TE Anthony Fasano at the $3 million range.

But even if the Patriots miss on both Bennett and Doyle, the Patriots should send their feelers out to see if they can take a rising talent in Doyle away from a conference “rival” like the Colts.