When the New England Patriots entered Super Bowl 53, they fielded one of the best tight end groups in the NFL. Rob Gronkowski, despite coming off a statistical down-year, was still among the league’s elite players at his position and a threat to be reckoned with (just ask the Los Angeles Rams). Dwayne Allen was one of the better blocking tight ends in pro football. And Stephen Anderson... well, he was a developmental depth option.
Now, that developmental depth option is all that remains from one of the NFL’s most talented position groups: Gronkowski announced his retirement in late March, at which point Allen had already been released by the club. Furthermore, Jacob Hollister, who ended the 2018 season on injured reserve but was the number three for the majority of the year, was traded to the Seattle Seahawks following the draft.
Anderson, meanwhile, remained standing and is now one of five men making up the world champions’ new-look tight end group. The former in-season practice squad addition knows that this means one thing: opportunity. “There’s a lot of opportunity. They want to see people that they can trust. When you’re going to be on the field with Tom, then they gotta trust you,” Anderson told reporters after Wednesday’s minicamp practice.
“I gotta make sure that my assignments are right, I gotta make sure I’m in the right spot when I need to be. I gotta make sure I’m playing a role on special teams. Yes, in general, there is a lot of opportunity,” continued the 26-year-old, who spent the first two years of his career with the Houston Texans before being brought on board by the Patriots last season. And he is not the only tight end on New England’s roster to feel that way.
Matt LaCosse is one of the new faces at the position: New England signed the four-year veteran in free agency, and over the course of the offseason up until this point he seems to have established himself as the top option at the tight end spot. And he seems to view the Patriots’ current situation at tight end just like Anderson does. “Obviously it’s a good opportunity,” LaCosse said. “But nothing’s earned yet.”
LaCosse, a former undrafted free agent like Anderson, was quick to point out that he and his fellow tight ends are still fairly early in the process — after all, the team just concluded its mandatory minicamp and is still three months removed from roster cutdowns. “We still have a really long way to go, everyone’s competing for the same spot. It’s one of those things you keep the pedal on the metal and you kind of get what you earn here.”
So far, LaCosse has earned plenty of practice reps with the presumed starting offense. For Anderson, this development over the last few weeks did not necessarily come as a surprise: “He’s a big guy but he can move really well. That’s one of the things I was surprised with when I saw him. He’s a jack of all trades. He can block. He can go out there and catch... go up and get it. I think he will be a great piece.”
LaCosse is one of three tight ends the Patriots brought aboard this offseason (four, if you also count recently released Austin Seferian-Jenkins). The others are Andrew Beck and veteran Benjamin Watson — two players with enormously different levels of experience: while Beck is an undrafted rookie, Watson is entering his fifteenth season since New England originally picked him 32nd overall in the 2004 draft.
“I think I have a leadership role in the locker room because I’m 38 years old. That’s just what comes when you’re an older player,” the veteran said, seemingly aware that his experience makes him the natural leader of the Patriots’ new-look tight end group. However, Watson was also quick to point out that being a leader does not equate to actually having a prominent role within the club’s offense.
“What happens in the locker room and on the field are two different things. On the field, this is the ultimate meritocracy. On the field, it’s about learning what to do. For me, it’s about being consistent, making plays,” said Watson before sharing a lesson he learned when he was a young player himself: “When you come in, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done somewhere else, it doesn’t matter what you did last year, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done through your career, or where you’ve been.”
“It’s all about how you perform every day in practice, how you listen to meetings, and those sort of things. I do consider myself to be a leader simply from a life standpoint — talking to younger guys — but as far as production on the field, that’s something that’s earned,” the elder statesman of New England’s tight end group continued. And in order to earn this production, players need to be able to stand out in practice.
For LaCosse, this starts with his skill set: he is, as Anderson also alluded to, arguably the most well-rounded of the tight ends brought in by the Patriots this offseason. While he is no Rob Gronkowski — nobody is, quite frankly — the 26-year-old does pride himself in also being a versatile player: “[I am] just a multiple guy, can play inside, outside and I’ve played in the backfield before, special teams, just all over the field,” LaCosse said. “Wherever you need me, that’s where I’m going to go.”
Anderson spoke in similar fashion about his very own skillset: “I’ve been in a lot of formations with my hand in the ground, I’ve been in a lot of formations split outside. The main key is to be open for everything and to be prepared for everything,” he said before adding that he was doing everything in his power to become the best player he could possibly be. By the sounds of it, the second-year Patriot appears to be on a good way: “I feel a lot more comfortable now.”
This confidence, Anderson knows, will be key moving forward — not just for him but for the entire tight end group: “Confidence is an important factor in this game: if you’re not confident, then you’re not going to do well,” he pointed out. “I know there’s big shoes to be replaced but none of us needs to be Rob [Gronkowski], we just need to be the best versions of ourselves. All we need to do is take it one day at a time.”