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What is the Patriots’ plan at the tight end position?

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Related: Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson announces his retirement

New England Patriots Practice Photo by Erin Clark for The Boston Globe via Getty Images

When Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement from pro football last March, the New England Patriots lost one of the best players the tight end position has ever seen: Gronkowski was not just one of the most dominant receivers of his era but also a devastating blocker in both the running and the passing game. The former second-round draft pick was therefore a focal point of New England’s offense between 2010 and 2018.

With him out of the picture, however, the Patriots struggled to find a viable replacement. They tried signing veterans like Lance Kendricks or Austin Seferian-Jenkins to no avail, and eventually headed into the season with Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo as their top two tight ends. Benjamin Watson, fresh off a five-month retirement and four-game suspension, joined the group later — as did Eric Tomlinson for two games — but the damage was done.

Without Gronkowski, the Patriots went from having the best tight end in football to the position becoming an afterthought. The receiving numbers are only one aspect but they perfectly illustrate this: New England’s tight ends combined to catch just 37 passes for 419 yards and two touchdowns during the regular season — 20 individual tight ends had more receptions than that, with 27 registering more receiving yards and 32 having more scores.

For comparison, Gronkowski’s worst statistical season saw him catch 25 passes for 540 yards and three touchdowns before he was placed on injured reserve after just eight games. Needless to say, therefore, that New England’s tight end production was a disappointment in 2019 and one of the primary reasons why the team’s offense struggled to consistently put points on the board over the second half of the season.

And yet, the Patriots did not address the position so far this offseason.

So, what is their plan? Let’s look through the available talent and how it ties into the general idea New England might have in mind for its offense heading into the 2020 season — the first in two decades without quarterback Tom Brady running the show.

The foundation

New England entered the offseason with three tight ends under contract, one of which headed for unrestricted free agency: Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo are still with the team, while Benjamin Watson decided to call it a career for good instead of trying to find a new team as a free agent — he announced his retirement on March 16. Based on the disappointing 2019 season, the group therefore lacks talent and upside especially in the receiving portion of playing tight end.

With that said, let’s take a closer look at LaCosse and Izzo:

Matt LaCosse (opening day age: 27): One of the Patriots’ free agency signings last March, LaCosse struggled with an ankle injury for much of the summer and also hurt his knee during the regular season. As a result, he was limited to just 12 in-game appearances in his first year in New England. But even when he was on the field, the 27-year-old failed to make a consistent impact: as the team’s primary blocking tight end, he surrendered six quarterback disruptions and caught only 13 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown.

Ryan Izzo (opening day age: 24): After missing his entire rookie year on injured reserve, Izzo was back on the field for the Patriots’ spring and training camp practices and promptly able to earn a spot on the team’s 53-man roster. But while he saw regular playing time over the first six weeks of the season — playing 63.5% of offensive snaps and catching six passes for 114 yards and a touchdown — the former seventh-round draft pick was relegated to emergency duty following a concussion suffered in October. He did not play even a single snap for the remainder of the season.

As can be seen, neither LaCosse nor Izzo seem to inspire much confidence heading into the 2020 season: they did not make much of a difference on the Patriots’ passing and running games last season despite getting considerable chances, and struggled to stay healthy along the way. While those two might be tied together, neither LaCosse nor Izzo can be considered a safe bet to contribute much if anything significant moving forward.

Unfortunately, New England’s potency to address these issues by bringing in a veteran option is limited: the Patriots have only $803,834 in salary cap space available, according to Miguel Benzan’s calculations. Considering that the team needs to create additional wiggle room for its draft class and potential in-season moves, money alone would likely not be able to lure tight ends on board without other adjustments being made.

That said, let’s take a look at the free agency and trade markets to assess the talent that still is or might become available.

The free agency and trade markets

Some big names entered the open market earlier this month — from the Los Angeles ChargersHunter Henry, to the Atlanta FalconsAustin Hooper, to the Indianapolis ColtsEric Ebron, to the Cincinnati BengalsTyler Eifert. One after the other, however, they became unavailable either by use of the franchise tag (Henry) or because other teams with more financial capabilities than the Patriots opted to invest in them: Hooper signed in Cleveland, Ebron in Pittsburgh, Eifert in Jacksonville.

New England, meanwhile, sat on the sidelines and let the market settle. The talent that remains after the first waves of free agency is mostly underwhelming, however, with the biggest names being the following:

Charles Clay (Arizona Cardinals)

Jordan Reed (Washington Redskins)

Luke Stocker (Atlanta Falcons)

Ricky Seals-Jones (Cleveland Browns)

Tyrone Swoopes (Seattle Seahawks)

Clive Walford (Miami Dolphins)

Delanie Walker (Tennessee Titans)

The Patriots could opt to bring in players like Walker or Clay due to their experience in combination with a likely moderate asking price, but neither them nor the other free agents available should be expected to make too big an impact on New England’s offense in 2020. Unless teams opt to part ways with other veterans until the draft or afterwards, the free agency market is not necessarily an appealing avenue to travel in order to address the tight end position.

The same cannot be said for the trade market, even though the cost associated with a move is higher: New England would have to give up either draft picks or players to acquire tight ends via trade, while also having to create additional room under the salary cap. The latter is less of a problem — the Patriots could always opt to release some of their more expensive players, or try to reach contract extensions to bring cap hits down — the former a variable depending on who actually becomes available.

From the current perspective, this is impossible to predict. Going by past precedent, however, the Patriots might be inclined to target players that are entering a contract year and/or have disappointed so far with their previous teams in exchange for mid- or late-round draft picks (of which New England owns quite a few). Players that do come to mind under these circumstances are, for example, the following:

Jake Butt (Denver Broncos)

Evan Engram (New York Giants)

Gerald Everett (Los Angeles Rams)

Jeff Heuerman (Denver Broncos)

David Njoku (Cleveland Browns)

Adam Shaheen (Chicago Bears)

The most attractive names on the list appear to be Gerald Everett, David Njoku or Adam Shaheen — not because of their past productivity but rather due to the circumstances: the Rams find themselves in a precarious salary cap situation in 2020 and beyond, while both the Browns and Bears have added considerable talent to their tight end positions in free agency and might therefore be willing to part ways with Njoku and Shaheen, respectively.

The trade options are plenty beyond the six names listed above, of course. What the Patriots need to do, however, is part ways with some of their available capital in order to get talent aboard.

The draft

Last year’s draft featured plenty of talent at the tight end position beyond round one. While T.J. Hockenson (1-8 to the Detroit Lions) and Noah Fant (1-20 to the Denver Broncos) stole the headlines, later-round selections such as the Buffalo BillsDawson Knox (3-96) also had an immediate impact on their teams. This level of depth cannot be found in the draft in 2020, but that does not mean New England will not be in a position to invest nevertheless.

In order to do that, however, the team will likely need fill its 63-pick gap between the end of the first and third rounds: due to the trade that brought wide receiver Mohamed Sanu to New England last year, the Patriots lack a second-round pick. They do have a first- and three third-round selections, though, which gives them plenty of flexibility to move around the board and potentially target an area in which the better tight end prospects are projected to come off the board.

Those prospects are as follows:

Cole Kmet (Notre Dame)

Adam Trautman (Dayton)

Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet reaffirmed at the scouting combine in Indianapolis that he is the best tight end available in this year’s draft, with Dayton’s Adam Trautman coming in as a close number two behind him. However, neither Kmet nor Trautman should expect to hear their names called on day one of the draft — they certainly have upside to develop into valuable and versatile contributors, but the talent at other positions makes it hard for them to crack the top-32. They will, however, likely come off the board early on Day Two.

Trading down from the 23rd overall selection could help the Patriots get in a position to take one (or maybe even both) of them, but even if they miss out other options could be brought aboard:

Harrison Bryant (Florida Atlantic)

Hunter Bryant (Washington)

Josiah Deguara (Cincinnati)

Brycen Hopkins (Purdue)

Thaddeus Moss (LSU)

While Washington’s Hunter Bryant and Purdue’s Brycen Hopkins are probably the best two players behind Kmet and Trautman, the biggest name on this list is LSU’s Thaddeus Moss: his father Randy Moss is a Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Patriot. That said, the 21-year-old is a comparatively raw athlete whose size — he was measured at not quite 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds at the combine — might lead to New England giving him a late-round grade at best.

All in all, the tight end position in this year’s draft is a two-class society: Kmet and Trautman are the best available options and probably the only ones that can be expected to consistently contribute in Year One. The other tight ends, meanwhile, are developmental in nature and therefore likely not even a direct threat to the roster standings of LaCosse and Izzo.

The offense as a whole

This is where things get interesting. With Tom Brady no longer part of the equation, the Patriots’ offense might be in for a change — if not schematically then at least philosophically in order to create the best possible environment for a new starting quarterback (from the current perspective likely second-year man Jarrett Stidham). What this means is that New England might be willing to invest more in the running game, similar to how the team operated during the 2018 playoffs.

While Brady’s role in that year’s championship run cannot be underestimated — just look at the game-deciding drives in the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl — the Patriots functioned well with an attack that prominently featured the running game. A similar development heading into 2020 would therefore not be a surprise, especially considering the questions the team faces at both the tight end and also the wide receiver positions.

Realistically, there appear to be two non-exclusive directions the team could go offensively:

1.) Become a run-based attack to take advantage of the depth at wide receiver and the strengths of the offensive line.

2.) Become an 11-personnel team and add further talent to a wide receiver position led by roster locks Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry via a deep draft class.

Both directions would have an impact on the tight end spot as well. The Patriots could opt to place an increased value on run-blocking over receiving skills, for example, while specializing roles to better fit the talents of the personnel available: LaCosse and Izzo are better blockers than pass catchers, for example, with potential rookie additions more likely to make an impact in the passing game than in-line (blocking has traditionally been an issue for rookie tight ends due to the way the college game is developing).

What does this all therefore mean?

Don’t be surprised if the Patriots try to bring one of Kmet or Trautman aboard via the draft to complement LaCosse and Izzo. Don’t be surprised if the team ends up double-dipping at the position even if an early Day Two selection has already been invested. Don’t be surprised if New England opts to forgo any trades or additional free agency pickups until after the draft due to the cost associated with the talent potentially available. Don’t be surprised if at least one if not both Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo are on the team come opening week to serve as blocking-first tight ends alongside rookie additions.

With that said, what is the Patriots’ plan at the tight end position?

Predicting what Bill Belichick’s Patriots will do is a fool’s errand. Based on the change at wide receiver plus the current circumstances — roster, financial/draft capital — and the strengths of this year’s draft class, however, it would not be a shock if New England opts to have the position play little more than a supporting role in 2020: supporting the running game with blocking-specific tasks, and supporting the passing game by having at least one high-upside receiver (likely a draft pick) available.

One thing seems certain, though: the Patriots will need to change the position’s role within its offensive attack to a complementary one — something that was not the case during Rob Gronkowski’s heyday.