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2019 NFL mock draft: Patriots add Rob Gronkowski’s replacement... in round two

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New England fills its biggest void, but not until the second day.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Stanford Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The main story of the New England Patriots’ 2019 offseason so far is personnel turnover — with the latest move arguably being the biggest so far: Rob Gronkowski announcing his retirement on Sunday. Replacing the game’s greatest ever tight end will naturally be a big task, and the Patriots should be expected to turn to the draft to add to add some upside and quality to their current tight end group.

Luckily for New England, the position features some intriguing early-round prospects: from Iowa’s first-round prospects T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant to intriguing day two options such as Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr, Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger and Mississippi’s Dawson Knox. However, it is another tight end the reigning world champions pick in the latest mock draft made by SB Nation’s Dan Kadar: Stanford’s Kaden Smith.

Smith is the second pick made by the Patriots in the two-round mock, but he would certainly address the position of biggest need at the moment. The question is whether or not the Patriots — who Kadar has pick Smith 56th overall — would fill comfortable with the 6’5, 250 lbs tight end considering that he is more of a project than the day one starter Gronkowski was when the Patriots picked him in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft.

As things stand right now, after all, Smith lacks one of Gronkowski’s defining traits: his ability to win against man coverage. “He struggles mightily to separate from man coverage and is physically dominated too often in his routes,” writes the Draft Network’s Jon Ledyard about the 21-year-old, who finished his 2018 junior season at Stanford with 47 catches for 635 yards and a pair of touchdowns while also seeing regular snaps as a blocker.

“If Smith had more athleticism or explosiveness I’d still be on board with taking him day two to develop, but I found him average at best in those two areas, while also being just an adequate blocker,” continued Ledyard. “His ball skills are tantalizing as a no. 2 tight end who can make an impact in the red zone, but I don’t know that Smith will ever be much more than that given his limitations.”

With the Patriots needing to replace their number one option at the position, seeing them pick Smith in the second round could be considered a bit of a surprise — unless they believe that a) he has the upside to turn into a man-coverage beater like Gronkowski, or b) a member of the current group is able to at least somewhat replace what the future Hall of Famer brought to the table in terms of receiving abilities.

Smith is the second player Kadar has the Patriots take in his mock, after Georgia cornerback Deandre Baker at the end of the first round and before Michigan defensive edge Chase Winovich with the 64th overall selection. And while the latter would — like Smith — add depth to a position of perceived need, Baker is an interesting selection with the 32nd overall pick considering that the Patriots are fairly deep at cornerback after re-signing Jason McCourty in free agency.