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Patriots free agency outlook: New England needs to re-tool its tight end group

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Related: Patriots free agency outlook: New England has plenty of options to improve its wide receiver position

NFL: Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots’ 2019 season came to a premature end when the team was eliminated in the wild card round of the playoffs. In order to return to the top of the NFL mountain, the organization will therefore have to turn the page and build a competitive roster to get back into a position again to compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. A big part of building that roster is successfully maneuvering through free agency.

If judged by the list of free agents to be, New England’s front office will be busy over the next few days before the new league year and free agency are officially kicked off on March 18. Also over the next few days, we will take a look at each individual position on the Patriots’ current roster to find out which players are headed for the open market, whether or not they should be expected back, and who might be brought in from the outside.

Today, the series continues with the tight end position.

Current position group

Under contract: Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo

Free agents: Benjamin Watson

Free agency profile: Benjamin Watson

Opening day age: 39

2019 salary cap hit: $940,000

2019 statistics: 11 games; 20 receptions, 211 receiving yards

Experience: Watson originally entered the NFL as a first-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2004, and spent the first six seasons of his career in New England. He went on to move around the league over the next nine years — Watson had stints in Cleveland, New Orleans (twice) and Baltimore — before eventually returning to his old stomping grounds in 2019: the Patriots lured Watson out of a five-month retirement in late May. But despite serving as the team’s top receiving back, his impact on a struggling passing offense was limited.

Contract status: Set to enter free unrestricted agency on March 18.

Immediately after New England’s season-ending loss in the wild-card playoff round, Watson cast doubt on his future with the team and speculated with retirement. Whether or not he actually steps away from the game, seeing the Patriots not retain the 39-year-old free agent would not be surprising: the tight end position needs more high-upside talent, and at this stage in his career Watson is unable to offer much more than a rotational/package-specific presence. His second tenure in New England therefore effectively seems to be over.

Outside free agents

Charley Clay, Arizona Cardinals (UFA): Even though Clay struggled to be a difference maker in the passing game the last two seasons, his experience and upside as a blocker should help him find a new team in free agency. He likely will not be able to succeed as a number one tight end, but could offer quality depth at a reasonable price.

Eric Ebron, Indianapolis Colts (UFA): After an outstanding 2018 season, Ebron took a step back last year and registered just 31 catches for 375 yards and three touchdowns before being placed on injured reserve in late November. Despite his comparatively disappointing second year in Indianapolis, the 26-year-old still offers considerable upside as a receiving tight end.

Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals (UFA): A former first-round draft pick that is coming off the first 16-game season of his seven-year career — and his first since 2015 that did not end on injured reserve — Eifert has the skillset to become one of the NFL’s elite tight ends: he is a tremendous pass catcher and solid blocker, and has been a steady contributor for the Bengals. His only big issue since joining the league in 2013 have been injuries.

Darren Fells, Houston Texans (UFA): While not a top tier free agent, Fells brings experience and abilities as a move tight end — his 6-foot-7 frame and strong route-running could make him a viable option in the passing game — to the table. He would likely not be a number one tight end or long-term solution given that he turns 34 in April, but is a veteran presence that might produce in a situational role.

Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers (UFA): The 25-year-old is a high-upside player with proven production as both a pass catcher and a blocker, whose biggest issue over the last four years were injury-related. When fully healthy, though, Henry could very well become one of the NFL’s best players at his position. It would therefore not be a surprise to see the Chargers place the franchise tag on him.

Austin Hooper, Atlanta Falcons (UFA): Hooper is a proven commodity as a receiver — especially in the underneath portions of the field — that is coming off the most productive season of his career: in 2019, the 25-year old caught 75 passes for 787 yards and six touchdowns. Given that he is also capable of serving as an in-line blocker, he would immediately become New England’s clear-cut number one at the position in both areas.

Blake Jarwin, Dallas Cowboys (RFA): Even though 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 better tight end options to enter free agency this year. He has not just the ideal size to work as a versatile option at the position at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, but has also proven himself a strong receiver and capable in-line blocker.

Marcedes Lewis, Green Bay Packers (UFA): Lewis turns 36 in May and played only a limited role over his two seasons in Green Bay, and should not be seen as a TE1 candidate. Nevertheless, he brings experience and steady blocking to the table and could serve as a mentor for younger players and package-specific contributor.

Nick Vannett, Pittsburgh Steelers (UFA): Vannett has not proven himself capable of succeeding as a team’s number one tight end four years into his career, but he could still become a comparatively cheap depth option to compete for a roster spot in a package-specific role. Bringing in the 27-year-old would therefore be a complementary, low-cost move if little else.

Verdict

The Patriots’ tight end position was a major weakness in 2019, with neither Benjamin Watson nor Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo providing consistent enough play to help the offense after the offseason retirement of future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski. A major rebuild therefore appears to be on the horizon for the club, with free agency or the trade market as the best avenues to improve the group immediately and with the 2020 season in mind.

While not all options are expected to hit the open market — Hunter Henry will likely be franchise-tagged by the Chargers, Blake Jarwin given the second-round tender by the Dallas Cowboys — this year’s free agency class still has some intriguing options available that could fill the TE1 role in New England. Austin Hooper appears to be the most attractive player, with Eric Ebron and Tyler Eifert as experienced and solid second-tier players.

Whatever route the Patriots want to go, one thing seems certain: the team will address its tight end position in the upcoming weeks not to risk a repeat of a disappointing 2019 season.