In 2018, the New England Patriots fielded one of the better tight end corps in the NFL — primarily because of one man. While Rob Gronkowski did not post the same outstanding receiving numbers he did in years past, he still proved himself to be a valuable cog in the team’s offensive arsenal due to his standout blocking and ability to come up with the big catch when it was needed. Make no mistake, Gronk was still very good in 2018.
Alongside the future Hall of Famer, the Patriots employed fellow standout blocking tight end Dwayne Allen as well as rotational backup options Jacob Hollister and Stephen Anderson. All in all, the group was solid last year even though Gronkowski naturally did most of the heavy lifting. Fast forward to July 2019, however, and you hardly recognize New England’s tight end depth chart due to all its offseason departures.
In March, Gronkowski decided to retire after nine seasons in the league. At that point, Dwayne Allen was already with the Miami Dolphins following his release by the Patriots. A month after Gronkowski’s retirement, the club also moved on from Jacob Hollister: the third-year man was traded to the Seattle Seahawks for a conditional 2020 seventh-round draft selection. This leaves Stephen Anderson as the only tight end remaining who spent time on the active roster at one point last year.
The rest of New England’s current tight end depth chart consists of offseason acquisitions and one player coming off a year-long stint on injured reserve:
TE Matt LaCosse, TE Benjamin Watson, TE Ryan Izzo, TE Stephen Anderson, TE Lance Kendricks, TE Andrew Beck, FB/TE Jakob Johnson
New England brought three of its current tight ends in via free agency this spring: Matt LaCosse was signed in March, and projects to have the best shot at making the team’s 53-man roster this summer; ex-Patriot Benjamin Watson was added to the group in May after ending his short-lived retirement; Lance Kendricks was added to the equation earlier this week and projects to be little more than a camp body at this point.
Ryan Izzo, meanwhile, is the aforementioned player to come off injured reserve — the former seventh-round draft pick, who entered the league as a blocking tight end, missed his entire rookie season due to an undisclosed injury. Rounding out the group are Anderson, a former practice squad player who made his way to the Patriots’ active roster late last season, and undrafted rookies Andrew Beck and Jakob Johnson.
All in all, the Patriots field a tight end group that lacks true star power but is versatile. LaCosse and Watson are the well-rounded players, Kendricks and Anderson primarily receivers, and Izzo, Beck and Johnson primarily blockers. The competition between the seven men certainly projects to be an intriguing one.
The deciding factors
Blocking technique: Today’s NFL is filled with tight ends that are outstanding pass catchers but lack the technique to also be successful as run blockers or pass protectors — all the things Gronkowski did at an absurdly high level. The Patriots want their tight ends to be able to block as well, however, which is why the seven men listed above need to be consistent and fundamentally sound in this part of the game. This should bode well for Izzo, Watson and to a lesser degree LaCosse.
Chemistry with Tom Brady: As is the case at the wide receiver positions, getting on the same page as the Patriots’ quarterback is imperative for skill position players in New England. Brady is a perfectionist and the system which he helped build needs his pass catchers to operate in the same fashion: they have to read coverages properly to make the right decisions on option routes, and need to be in the exact location the future Hall of Famer expects them to be. If a tight end can’t develop that chemistry and earn Brady’s trust, his tenure in New England will be short.
Physicality: Tight ends have to show a physical edge if they want to be successful with the Patriots. Not only will they face their fair share of press-man coverage, after all, they also need to be able to move bodies in the running game and when called upon as pass protectors. Bringing the right mindset to the table and not being afraid to either take a hit or finish a block is key here.
Deep receiving skills: While the Patriots’ tight ends usually run their fair share of slants and other short to medium in-breaking routes in the Patriots’ system, they also need to be able to get down the field and win one-on-one matchups if need be. Rob Gronkowski was outstanding in this area during his nine seasons in New England — he dominated down the seam and when going against one-on-one coverage on the outside — and his successors need to prove themselves in this area as well. For what it’s worth, LaCosse and Anderson looked good as downfield threats during mandatory minicamp.
Positional versatility: New England puts a premium on versatility, and the tight end position is a perfect example for that. The players need to be able to contribute in the passing game and as blockers, and they also have to show their value on special teams or by being able to line up all over the formation. Fullback/tight end hybrid James Develin does this as well as anybody, and his versatility could make other players on the current roster expendable if they are not also able to wear multiple hats.
Tight end is one of only two positions on the Patriots’ current roster — the other being punter — where not a single player can be considered a lock to make the team. This makes for an interesting competition, but it also makes predicting it rather difficult. Adding to that is the fact that Benjamin Watson will open the regular season suspended for violating the NFL’s policy against performance enhancing drugs.
With Watson out for the first four weeks, the Patriots might opt to carry just two tight ends (plus the aforementioned James Develin) on their initial roster. Matt LaCosse should be penciled in as one of them based on his performance during spring practices. The other spot remains wide open, though, and all things being equal should be decided simply based on roster composition: do the Patriots want another blocker or rather a receiver?
If the answer is the former, Ryan Izzo making the team would not be surprising. If it is the latter, however, Stephen Anderson might very well end up as the last man standing. Either way, the next few weeks will be fun to watch even without a generational talent like Rob Gronkowski on the field.