Editor’s note: With Rob Gronkowski retiring from the NFL, let’s revisit this story about the top-two tight ends entering this year’s draft — and what they would bring to the table.
Folks, the off-season is upon us. The new league year began last week, all of the trades made to this point (including the Patriots acquiring Michael Bennett) became official, and most of the top free agents already found new homes. The next major date(s) on the NFL calendar come in late April with the NFL draft.
In preparation of the draft, Pats Pulpit will be providing profiles on players with a particular look at their fit in New England. To kick this off, a special look at the two Iowa tight ends that have long been talked about as options for the Patriots in the first round. To determine which of Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson is a better fit in New England, this article will examine their strengths, weaknesses, and fit on the team.
Noah Fant was the incumbent Hawkeyes tight end receiving first round hype entering the year. A 6’4”, 249 pound junior, Fant has freakish athleticism that allows him to act as essentially a receiver playing tight end. In 18 games over three seasons for the Hawkeyes, Fant compiled (and a preemptive note, the Hawkeyes are not a team that heavily passes the ball or does so very effectively — keep that in mind!) 78 receptions for 1,083 yards and 19 touchdowns. He was their biggest passing weapon over the past two years, and looks to be the next in line of the athletic freaks at tight end to come out of the draft in recent years.
T.J. Hockenson was the “riser” during the 2019 season. A nearly 6’5”, 251 pound redshirt sophomore, Hockenson went from a clear second option to Fant to actually surpassing his production in 2019, amassing 49 receptions for 780 yards and 6 touchdowns in 13 games this year to Fant’s 39/519/7 in 12. Hockenson is your classic all-around tight end. A ferocious blocker who has receiving ability as well, Hockenson is as scheme-independent as they come.
Fant’s biggest strength is his athleticism. Testing in the 98.4th SPARQ percentile, Fant is a legitimately historically elite athlete at tight end. The only tight end with a better SPARQ score than Fant since the database has been going (2014) was Mike Geisicki last year, by 4.6 points or 0.7%. Beyond Fant’s athleticism, his ability as a receiving threat is unmatched in this class. He possesses the talent to run a full route tree as a tight end, with the hands and size to win at the catch point both in traffic and over defenders. While Fant is nowhere close to a strong or polished blocker, he deserves some credit for not being a complete liability when run-blocking man-up. The foundation as a blocker is there for him to develop into at least a serviceable one down the line.
Compared to Fant needing to get charity points for having minimal foundation, Hockenson’s strengths start with his run blocking. He is a monster who is a capable of adding to his team’s line in any running scheme. He’ll enter the league as one of the best blocking tight ends who can also provide value as a pass catcher. No slouch athlete either, Hockenson provides immediate value as a receiver in the short-intermediate game, as well as down the field on seam routes. He can add value to any play in any situation thanks to his rounded skillset, and while his hands and pass-catching technique can be improved, they will enter the league as a plus ability for Hockenson.
For all the charity points I was willing to give Fant as a man-up run blocker, every other aspect of his game as a blocker is a mess. He takes some of the worst angles I’ve seen on any reach or second level block, ending up wildly out of position with no leverage in the rare occasion he even gets a hand on the man. As a pass blocker (in the extremely rare cases he got to showcase this), he came out of his stance extremely upright with narrow feet, allowing him to be an initial deterrent but not much more for the pass rusher. Fant also showed some concerning concentration issues. He was the last offensive player off the line at snap the majority of the time, and the drops he had during my viewing were a result of poor concentration.
Hockenson isn’t going to enter the league winning with precise routes or a complex route tree. Flat/Curl/Crosser/Seam are probably going to be nearly the only routes he runs early in his career, which is enough to be a threat as a receiver but should be expanded on to become a truly elite receiving threat. His hands could be stronger, but they aren’t going to be a detriment.
**Throughout this series we will be doing a play breakdown of the prospect with a handful of plays that appropriately summarize his game. Due to the comparative nature of this article, doing so for both players would either be excessively long or not appropriately capture their gameplay.**
Fant would fill a role the Patriots haven’t had at tight end since... well, since police got involved in someone taking people’s lives. Fant is a chess piece, a wide receiver in a tight ends body that can be lined up anywhere and create a mismatch. Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady would have so much fun figuring out how to get Fant the ball. How they view him as a blocker and how that impacts their assessment of him remains to be seen, especially without Dwayne Allen anymore to be the blocking tight end. If they feel they need him to step up as a blocker, this fit may fall apart, but as a weapon at receiver this would be a ton of fun. Fant would be more of a Rob Gronkowski complement (if he were to return) than a Rob Gronkowski replacement, just as aforementioned lifetaker was to Gronkowski seven years ago.
Hockenson would be the Gronkowski replacement were they to take him. An all-around threat who can block as well as he can receive (though maybe do neither as well as Gronk, given Gronk is the best to ever play tight end), Hockenson would likely fill in more to give Gronkowski a break/fill in for injury if Gronk were to return than to be a complement to him the way Fant was.
Fant graded out as a top-tier second round pick for me. His concentration concerns me the most, but I am enamored by him as a receiver and I think he has a foundation to build from as a blocker. I would be excited if he were available for the Patriots at 32.
Hockenson was firmly a first round pick for me, and I think his all-around skillset provides both a higher floor and ceiling compared to Fant. He is diverse enough as a receiver to be a threat even if he never develops, and his blocking will immediately place him among the elite at tight end.
While I would be happy with either of the Iowa tight ends falling to 32, I believe Hockenson is both the better player and the better fit in New England. Hockenson would provide value with or without Rob Gronkowski, and when Gronkowski moves on to acting or wrestling or whatever he plans to do after football, Hockenson is better equipped to fill in his role without significantly changing the framework of the offense the way Fant would. That being said, Hockenson is unlikely to be available when the Patriots pick, and may not even make it to realistic trade-up range for the Patriots.
Fant, however, has a chance to be there at 32 and would also be a tremendous fit in the Patriots offense. If Rob Gronkowski does return, Fant makes more sense than Hockenson in terms of value added to the 2019 edition of the team as well. He would be a second choice, but by no means a consolation prize among the Iowa tight ends.
To summarize, if you are in the camp of wanting the Patriots to go tight end in the first round, hope for T.J. Hockenson, expect and still be excited for Noah Fant.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter at @Ryan_Keiran, and you can also follow his bi-weekly twitch streams where he hosts a football Q&A while playing games at twitch.tv/over_peek, and you can subscribe and see past streams on YouTube at over_peek.