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2020 NFL free agency: Pieces are starting to fall into place at the Patriots’ biggest position of need

Related: Bengals to franchise-tag A.J. Green; keep one top receiver option from the market and the Patriots

Minnesota Vikings v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Rob Leiter via Getty Images

The New England Patriots have considerable work to do between now and March 18: 19 members of the team’s roster are scheduled to hit free agency, with 16 of them — including cornerstone players such as quarterback Tom Brady, guard Joe Thuney, linebacker Kyle Van Noy and safety Devin McCourty — carrying the unrestricted label. However, Bill Belichick and company will have to do more than “just” bring back some of the home-grown free agents.

They also will have to re-build an offense, ideally around Brady, that struggled to consistently move the football in 2019. There were numerous reasons for that — from injuries to off-field issues to predictably slow learning curves — and among them also was New England’s inability to replace retired All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski: with the future Hall of Famer gone, the team failed to field a competitive group at the tight end position.

Entering 2020, New England has only two tight ends under contract but neither Matt LaCosse nor Ryan Izzo are locks to eventually be on the 53-man team once the regular season starts in September. After all, the Patriots are expected to add more talent and competition over the next few weeks and months in order to improve what has arguably been their weakest position group last season.

And 15 days away from free agency, the first pieces are starting to fall into place.

Dallas Cowboys will place the second-round tender on Blake Jarwin

Even though Blake Jarwin played just 39% of the Cowboys’ offensive snaps in 2019 — finishing the season with 31 catches for 365 yards and three touchdowns — he is one of the most intriguing tight end options to enter free agency this year. After all, the 25-year-old has not just the ideal size to work as a versatile option at the position at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, he also has proven himself a strong receiver and capable in-line blocker as well.

Accordingly, the Cowboys will try to keep Jarwin around: as first reported by ESPN’s Todd Archer, Dallas is expected to place the second-round tender on the restricted-free-agent-to-be. The tender is a one-year contract expected to be worth around $3.3 million this year, that would allow other teams to extend offer sheets towards the tight end but give the Cowboys five days to match it or get a second-round draft selection as compensation.

New England currently does not own a second-round pick in this year’s draft due last season’s Mohamed Sanu. Even in case one is acquired over the next few weeks, however, it would not be a surprise if the Patriots decided to pass on the opportunity to go after Jarwin under the current circumstances.

Los Angeles Chargers will likely use the franchise tag on Hunter Henry

Hunter Henry is one of the better tight end options to enter this year’s unrestricted free agency, and it seems as if the Chargers are unwilling to give the former second-round draft pick up without a fight — especially after last month’s announcement that long-time starting quarterback Philip Rivers would not return for the 2020 season. According to reports out of Los Angeles, the team is therefore preparing to use the franchise tag on Henry.

Considering the 25-year-old’s status as one of the team’s high-priority free agents in combination with the fact that the tag for tight ends is expected to be set at only $10.7 million, such a move would not be a surprise in case a long-term deal is not reached between the two parties. And even if the Chargers use the non-exclusive tag to keep Henry in the fold for 2020, the Patriots going after him seems like an unrealistic scenario: they would have to give up two first-round draft picks in order to acquire Henry.

Atlanta Falcons will allow Austin Hooper to test the open market

How the free agency market at tight end will develop is anyone’s guess at this point in time, but the expectation is that Austin Hooper will be in a position to reset it. After all, the 25-year-old is coming off the best season of his career — he had 75 receptions for 787 yards and six touchdowns — and is a proven pass catcher that knows how to block as well. He is an all-around tight end like Gronkowski used to be, even though he is not that big a game-changer.

Unlike Jarwin and Henry, Hooper is expected to make it to the open market: as Falcons general manager (and former Patriots director of college scouting) Thomas Dimitroff announced during the scouting combine last week, his team will let the tight end explore his market before making a decision whether or not to retain him. It would not be a surprise if New England enters the competition as well, unless another high-caliber move has already been made at that point.

Either way, Hooper seems to be one of the more realistic candidates to be available in free agency for the Patriots this year. And with both Jarwin and Henry expected to be kept by their respective teams, he could very well command more than $10 million per year.