The tight end position was arguably the worst on the New England Patriots’ roster in 2019, with no player being able to establish himself as a true number one option following Rob Gronkowski’s retirement: neither offseason additions Matt LaCosse and Benjamin Watson, nor second-year man Ryan Izzo, proven to be able to elevate the Patriots’ offense through their receiving contributions or their play as blockers in the running game.
Following a free agency period that saw other players at the position sign big contracts elsewhere, the Patriots are left with only LaCosse and Izzo remaining on their roster. While there is a chance that the team projects both to make a big jump heading into their second real seasons in the system (Izzo missed his 2018 rookie campaign on injured reserve), it seems likely that New England will invest in the position during this year’s draft.
We have already looked at Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet and Dayton’s Adam Trautman earlier during the offseason — Kmet still projects to be the top tight end available, with Trautman’s stock rising steadily since our evaluation in mid-February — so now it is time to tackle another one of the better players available at the position.
Name: Brycen Hopkins
Position: Tight end
School: Purdue (redshirt senior)
Opening day age: 23
2019 stats: 11 games; 738 snaps; 89 targets, 61 receptions (8 drops); 830 receiving yards; 7 receiving touchdowns
Size: 6037, 245 lbs, 10.13 hand size, 32.13 arm length
Workout numbers: 4.66 40-yard dash, 7.25 three-cone, 4.28 short shuttle, 33.5 vertical jump, 908 broad jump, 21 bench press
Expected round: 2nd-3rd
Strengths: Hopkins offers considerable upside as a receiving tight end due to his combination of impressive straight-line speed, soft hands, and advanced route running: he seems tailor-made to attack down the seam at the next level and challenge linebackers one-on-one in coverage. After all, he looks really smooth when playing in the open field and goes through his breaks seamlessly and without losing speed. He is a threat when catching the football in the open and being allowed to roam the field.
A co-captain during his redshirt senior season at Purdue, Hopkins’ production improved every year in college. What helped him do that is his superb ability to track the football in the air — something that also makes him dangerous in contested situations: he knows how to box out defenders for possession of the ball, and numerous times has made impressive catches. Hopkins also is a capable downfield threat that has averaged 14.9 yards after reception over his last three years with the Boilermakers.
Weaknesses: Hopkins may be a willing downfield blocker but his in-line skills are limited. His comparatively small frame and upper-body strength may hinder him, but so does his passivity: he is more absorbing as a blocker than trying to move forward, and bends too much upon initial contact. He also is a bit stiff coming out of his three-point stance, whether in blocking situations or when running routes. Add it all up, and his upside to develop into an all-around tight end appears to be rather limited.
Hopkins also has struggled with drops at times, having registered 22 on 152 catchable targets in college. His inconsistent catching technique — he sometimes fails to properly haul the football in — and up-and-down concentration hurt him in this area. Furthermore, he needs to show an ability to successfully win against man-to-man coverage at the next level: Hopkins had most of his success at Purdue when attacking zone concepts, and needs to adapt to the physicality of NFL-caliber linebackers and defensive backs.
What would be his role? As noted above, the Patriots’ current tight end depth chart consists of only Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo — two players who bring different skillsets to the table when compared to Hopkins: LaCosse is more well-rounded, while Izzo primarily a blocker. The Purdue product would therefore fit in well as a package-specific receiving option and the team’s possible number one tight end in obvious passing situations.
How many downs can he play? Four in theory, but the Patriots would likely use him primarily on passing downs given his limited upside as a blocker. Despite that comparatively limited usage, however, Hopkins would have value as another big receiving option.
What is his special teams value? In 2019, New England had four tight ends on its roster — the aforementioned LaCosse, Izzo and Watson as well as short-time pickup Eric Tomlinson — and they combined to play only 13 snaps on special teams throughout the year. That said, the Patriots have previously used players at the position in the kicking game as well so it would not be a surprise to see them employ Hopkins on field goal/extra point protection units if he can improve his blocking compared to his college days.
Does he have positional versatility? The tight end position is in itself one of versatility, but Hopkins’ is still limited due to his blocking. Purdue did still move him around the formation a bit: according to Pro Football Focus’ 2020 NFL Draft Guide, he played 377 snaps from the slot in 2019, as well as 315 from an in-line alignment. This leaves 46 snaps that he spent either split out wide or in the backfield — a low number that will likely increase in the NFL.
Will his role change from Year One to Year Two? Hopkins may have the upside to turn into a true TE1 at the next level, but his blocking needs to improve substantially for that to happen. Given his comparatively small frame, however, his room for growth in that area appears to be limited upon entering the NFL and between Years One and Two. That said, any improvement would be welcome and could lead to a change in role — especially in terms of seeing more early-down snaps in 2021.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? Hopkins is projected to come off the board on the second day of the draft, so he would be a lock to make New England’s roster if selected by the team. The only question would therefore be whether or not he would beat out Matt LaCosse and/or additional rookie tight ends for the number one receiving role. Chances do look good in this scenario, though.
Why the Patriots? The Patriots’ tight end position struggled mightily in 2019, and Hopkins would give the team a strong athlete who might be the most natural pass catcher at the position in this year’s draft — something the team desperately needs. Add his already strong route running and good ball skills, and you get a player who could have a positive impact on New England’s passing offense from Day One. Again, this is something that the team lacked in 2019 and certainly needs.
Why not the Patriots? As stated above, Hopkins will likely enter the draft as the number three tight end behind Cole Kmet and Adam Trautman — two players whose build is more prototypical than Hopkins’ and who therefore might be higher up on the Patriots’ board. The team might therefore prefer to go after one of them instead of Hopkins (or swing a trade during the draft). His limited upside as a blocker and slow three-cone drill also may hurt his stock and lead New England to look elsewhere.
Verdict: Hopkins would fit in well with the Patriots’ offense due to his strong athletic profile and advanced route running. The team might only have him third on its list of preferred targets behind Kmet and Trautman due to his smaller frame and one-dimensionality, however, so there appears to be a chance he would only be a contingency option. Still, his receiving skills do make him an interesting option on Day Two of the draft and/or if Kmet and Trautman are already gone.