One of the biggest storylines of the New England Patriots’ 2018 offseason was the future of star tight end Rob Gronkowski. Coming off a dominant albeit ultimately unsuccessful Super Bowl, there was speculation whether or not the future Hall of Famer would decide to call it a career. In the end, Gronkowski did not but the speculation did not go away — especially considering how his season is going so far.
The 29-year old has frequently found himself on the injury report with back and ankle issues, and his production is down from years past. Safe to say that retirement will be a topic of discussion after this season as well — but no matter how it all plays out, the tight end position appears to be a long-term concern for the Patriots either way considering that depth behind Gronkowski is sparse.
It would therefore not be a surprise if New England picked one early next year to groom or use right away as Gronkowski’s successor. According to Mocking the Draft’s Dan Kadar, who released his first mock draft earlier this week, Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson is a possible candidate to get selected by the Patriots in round one:
T.J. Hockenson, TE, Iowa
There has been speculation that this could be the final year for Rob Gronkowski in New England. If that’s the case, finding his replacement should be the Patriots’ top offseason priority. Hockenson isn’t quite the size/athleticism combination Gronkowski — no one is — but he’s similar in that he can block, catch the ball well and get yards after the catch.
Hockenson has all you would want from a tight end: at 6’5, 245 lbs, he is a big target in the passing game and also able to successfully serve as a blocker in the running game — one of the major reasons why Gronkowski is the best tight end of his era and despite his lack of receiving production in 2018 still one of the top players at the position right now. The Iowa product knows how to successfully engage defenders and create an up-field push no matter if playing on the line or in open space.
His blocking is only one of his strengths: Hockenson also moves well as a pass catcher, displays good hands and route running, and in general has been productive in this role for the Hawkeyes this season. On the year, the third-year sophomore who has seen considerable playing time on every down and no matter the situation, caught 46 balls for 717 yards — both team-highs — and six touchdowns.
As Kadar notes, he doesn’t have the elite skill set of Gronkowski but would be a solid developmental option for a Patriots team that might have to prepare for life without its superstar tight end. Adding one that has plenty of potential would ease the pain of this loss, though.