It is no secret that the New England Patriots need to boost their tight end group this off-season.
In the wake of Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, the Patriots tried a various mix at the position last season, with minimal success. New England’s tight ends combined for just 37 receptions a year ago, barely surpassing the production from Phillip Dorsett and falling short of the 47 receptions Gronkowski posted in his injury-plagued final campaign.
While there are questions about the potential rookie tight end class, specifically whether there is a player who can immediately step into an NFL offense and produce as a rookie, there are certainly some intriguing options at the position.
Some of those players addressed the media at the NFL Scouting Combine this morning, nd if Patriots fans are hoping to hear that the organization could find the next Gronkowski, they might be excited to hear that at least one of the prospects looks to model their game around what Gronkowski brought to the table.
That prospect is Missouri tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. He measured in well on Monday, checking in just over 6’5” and weighing 258 pounds, with a wingspan just under 80 inches. On film, Okwuegbunam stands out as a player that could contribute early in his career, both due to his ability to work up the seams in the passing game (something the Patriots seemed to lack this past season without Gronkowski) and his willingness to contribute as a blocker in the ground game.
Speaking of film, when asked if there were any tight ends that he studied on tape, Gronkowski’s name quickly came up. As Okwuegbunam told the assembled media personnel on Tuesday morning:
“When I got to college and transitioned to tight end I watched a lot of different tape. Having Derek Dooley come over from the Cowboys, he brought over a lot of terminology and concepts from them, so I watched a lot of [Jason] Witten tape. I definitely watched a lot of Gronk tape. I really admire how he has a balance to his game. He is dominant in both the run and in the pass game, and I try to emulate that.”
Okwuegbunam was asked later a specific question about Gronkowski, and he was quick to continue his praise of the former Patriot and what stood out:
“Really his ability to do everything... everything you could ever ask of a tight end. To be able to split out wide, be manned up against a corner, to be in the open field, in the red zone to be able to move him anywhere and create a mismatch, as well as utilizing him in the run game. He could play on every down, you don’t have to bring him off the field for anything. As a tight end you take a lot of pride in that, so I really appreciated his game and what he could do, and I definitely try to emulate that.”
When you study Okwuegbunam on film, you can see how he tries to model himself after the former Patriot. As stated earlier, his work on vertical routes and up the seams does stand out, and that was certainly an aspect to Gronkowski’s game that was lacking from the Patriots offense a year ago. Something else that was lacking in New England’s offense in 2019 was a true red zone weapon or mismatch player, outside of James White and/or Julian Edelman, and a player with Okwuegbunam’s size and hands could certainly step into that role.
Athletic testing will be big for the Missouri product this week. If he can show some explosiveness and athleticism, that will go a long way to illustrating that he can be a true mismatch player in the NFL, and can beat man coverage when asked to do so on Sundays. But for Patriots fans, the fact that he’s modeling his game after a player the organization is trying desperately to replace might be welcome news.
Mark Schofield is in Indianapolis all week to cover the combine for Pats Pulpit. Make sure to give him a follow on Twitter @markschofield.