There is no sugarcoating it: the New England Patriots offense suffered a massive blow on Sunday, when Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement from pro football. Not only was he a tremendous threat as a pass catcher due to his physical skill set and chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady, he also was as good a blocker as the tight end position has ever seen. Trying to replace this type of talent will certainly not be easy for the team.
What can the Patriots therefore do to fill the void created by Gronkowski’s retirement at age 29? While they could luck out and get a released player onto the team shortly before opening week — like they did with guard Brian Waters in 2011 — the more realistic avenues are the following that can all be traveled well before the start of training camp. Don’t be surprised if New England attacked not just one but more of them in the upcoming weeks.
Promote from within
As things stand right now, the Patriots have four tight ends under contract who combine for 76 games of NFL experience: Jacob Hollister and Stephen Anderson are primarily receiving options with limited upside as blockers, while 2018 seventh-round draft pick Ryan Izzo is the exact opposite. The most complete player New England currently has at tight end might very well be free agency addition Matt LaCosse.
LaCosse would probably be the next man up if a game would be played this week, given his skill set as a blocker and receiver. He is no Rob Gronkowski — frankly, no tight end is — but he can be a serviceable option. Needless to say, however, that adding more talent and upside to the position will be imperative over the next few weeks. Whenever this happens, though, the current group will still play a role in helping replace the future Hall of Famer.
The collective effort of replacing Gronkowski will also include players at other positions. Wide receivers Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett and — in case he will get reinstated by the league over the course of the summer — Josh Gordon will have to carry some of the burden as the most experienced downfield pass catching options, as will primary receiving running backs James White and Rex Burkhead.
Just look at the Patriots’ five most prolific pass catchers when Gronkowski was unavailable in weeks seven, nine and ten of the 2018 regular season:
Julian Edelman: 20 catches, 211 yards, 1 touchdown
James White: 19 catches, 160 yards, 2 touchdowns
Josh Gordon: 13 catches, 311 yards, 1 touchdowns
Chris Hogan: 6 catches, 63 yards
Phillip Dorsett: 6 catches, 56 yards
For comparison, only one tight end — the now-released Dwayne Allen — also caught passes during those three games: he saw two targets and made two receptions for 31 yards. When Gronkowski was not part of the lineup last year, the team effectively glossed over the tight end position in its passing game and increased the volume of targets for its primary wide receivers and pass-catching back James White.
Something similar could also happen in 2019, depending on how the roster develops over the next few months in regards to the tight end position itself and the wide receiver spot (with Josh Gordon indefinitely suspended and Chris Hogan still unsigned).
Sign free agents
Free agency has died down significantly since the legal tampering period started exactly two weeks ago. The top names on the market — including some high-profile now-former Patriots like Trey Flowers and Trent Brown — have been signed, leaving mostly only second-tier options or those with more red flags left available. The tight end position, which never had the strongest free agency class to begin with, is no different.
Consequently, New England should not count on finding a starting-caliber tight end on the open market as it is currently constituted. Instead, the team could opt to add depth and rotational pieces to potentially upgrade what is on the roster at the moment. So, who would be available in this scenario? The following players are among those that come to mind as potential options given their experience, untapped potential, or familiarity:
Blake Bell: 10 games, 8 catches, 67 yards
A.J. Derby: 4 games, 3 catches, 48 yards, 1 touchdown
Dion Sims: 8 games, 2 catches, 9 yards
Levine Toilolo: 16 games, 21 catches, 263 yards, 1 touchdown
Maxx Williams: 13 games, 16 catches, 143 yards, 1 touchdown
As stated above, however, none of them will likely be a starter in the NFL in 2019 let alone a one-for-one replacement for the greatest tight end to ever play the game. Instead, the Patriots could look at those options and other still unsigned tight ends as low-risk, moderate-reward players who could push bottom-of-the-roster players — which essentially is every tight end currently under contract not named Matt LaCosse.
Add rookie options via the draft
One of the deepest positions in this year’s draft is — you guessed it — tight end. With Iowa’s outstanding duo of T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, at least two prospects are expected to come off the board on day one. Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr, meanwhile, could join them as another first-round selection when all is said and done. The group’s quality does not end after its top three options, however, as a look at Draft Network’s prospect rankings shows.
All in all, six players at the position find themselves among the top-100 ranked prospects — suggesting that talent should be available beyond the first round:
#7 Noah Fant (Iowa)
#8 T.J. Hockenson (Iowa)
#33 Irv Smith Jr. (Alabama)
#49 Jace Sternberger (Texas A&M)
#61 Dawson Knox (Mississippi)
#85 Dax Raymond (Utah State)
With the Patriots holding plenty of draft capital — New England owns a league-high twelve selections, half of which within the first 101 picks — they are in a prime position to manipulate the board to their liking as it relates to the tight end position. While both Iowa products will likely come off the board too soon for the world champions, the club should nevertheless be in a position to strike on the other four men listed above (or other potential targets).
Due to his well-rounded game as a blocker and a receiver as well as his positional versatility stemming from his skill set, Smith Jr. is the most intriguing option outside of Fant and Hockenson. While far from the high-upside prospect Gronkowski was nine years ago, the Alabama product could still turn into a quality number one option further down the line that also could have a day-one impact if trusted with a serious role.
Smith Jr. would certainly be an immediate upgrade over what New England currently has under contract — something that cannot definitely be said about the likes of Jace Sternberger, Dawson Knox and Dax Raymond. The three, after all, are rather one-dimensional players at this point in their respective careers and with strengths as receivers (Sternberger, Raymond) and in the blocking game (Knox). The trio would certainly benefit from having a strong rotation around it.
New England, at least at this point in time, cannot offer such a thing. Then again, this should not necessarily be viewed as a bad sign for the position’s long-term outlook. Just go back to 2010, when the club added Gronkowski and long-time running mate Aaron Hernandez in rounds two and four of the draft: heading into the player selection meeting, the Patriots had just two tight ends — free agency pickup Alge Crumpler and practice squad re-signing Rob Myers — under contract. Ultimately, it all turned out alright.
Of course, the NFL of 2010 and the NFL of 2019 are quite different when it comes to the value of the tight end position — thanks in large part due to Gronkowski’s impact on the game. This is also why players like Hockenson and Fant are projected to hear their names called outside of New England’s likely trade-up range. Given the depth of the position, however, the club should still be able to find quality and developmental upside on days two and three.
Explore the trade market
Last year, the Patriots entered the draft without a clear-cut starting option at left tackle after Nate Solder had left the team via free agency. After the three-day event, the team had two potential replacements: Isaiah Wynn was added on day one with a first-round draft pick, Trent Brown — the eventual left tackle on the 2018 Super Bowl squad — one day later via a trade with the San Francisco 49ers.
What does this tell us? That the Patriots love to use the trade market to get talent onto their roster — and when it comes to the 2019 tight end position, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the same happen once again. After all, New England has plenty of ammunition available and. with Gronkowski no longer on the books, also considerable salary cap space to take on a potential higher-price acquisition.
The major question, of course, is which tight ends could be available for trade or — to take one step further back — of interest for the Patriots. One group that comes to mind right away are players entering the final year of their contracts. Trent Brown, for example, fell into this category last year (which is why he hit free agency earlier this offseason to sign a record-breaking contract with the Oakland Raiders).
When it comes to the possible tight end market, the following players could be on Bill Belichick and company’s radar:
Garrett Celek (San Franciso 49ers)
Seth DeValve (Cleveland Browns)
Ryan Griffin (Houston Texans)
Kyle Rudolph (Minnesota Vikings)
Nick Vannett (Seattle Seahawks)
While the Vikings’ Kyle Rudolph is undoubtably the biggest name on the list given his accomplishments over the last eight years in the NFL, the Seahawks’ Nick Vannett might actually be the most interesting player of the five — not just because of his nickname: Baby Gronk. The 26-year old also fits the mold of what the Patriots are looking for at the position in terms of size and well-roundedness.
Vannett is coming off the best season of his career — he caught 29 passes for 269 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2018 — and was Seattle’s number one tight end option last year, but could still become available if New England presents an interesting offer relative to the depth of the rookie class. Would he be able to turn into the same big-play threat as Gronkowski? That is highly unlikely. However, just like all the other names mentioned so far, he would help the Patriots soften the blow of his retirement.
After all, replacing the 29-year-old with just one player is near impossible. Exploring internal and external options as well as draft prospects, however, could lead to the creation of a deep group capable of doing some of the things the future Hall of Famer did. And that alone would be worth a lot.