With only two weeks to go until they are scheduled to report to training camp, the New England Patriots currently have the league-allowed maximum of 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer — just like we did the last three years as well — we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with one of New England’s tight ends.
Name: Matt LaCosse
Position: Tight end
Jersey number: 83
Opening day age: 27
Size: 6-foot-6, 255 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2020 (2021 UFA)
What is his experience? After posting comparatively pedestrian numbers over his four years at the University of Illinois, LaCosse did not hear his name called during the NFL’s 2015 draft. Instead, he had to go the free agency route to find a pro-level team and ended up signing with the New York Giants — kicking off a tumultuous three-year stint. LaCosse was twice waived due to injury, had a six-day interlude with the New York Jets, spent time on the Giants’ practice squad, and caught three passes for 22 yards in five games.
LaCosse found more success after getting picked up by the Denver Broncos late during the 2017 season. He earned the number two tight end role the following summer and went on to appear in 15 games for his new club, setting career-highs in catches (24), receiving yards (250) and touchdowns (1) while seeing regular action on offense and special teams for the first time in his career. Nevertheless, Denver declined to offer him a restricted free agency tender in 2019 — allowing him to enter the open market and eventually join the Patriots.
What did his 2019 season look like? Two days into free agency, LaCosse signed a two-year, $4.8 million contract with the Patriots that did not guarantee him a spot on the roster but put him in a solid position to become the team’s new TE1 in Year One after Rob Gronkowski’s (temporary) retirement. His outlook changed during New England’s preseason opener, however, when he suffered a sprained ankle that forced him to sit out the rest of the exhibition schedule and also bothered him over the first quarter of the regular season.
In general, injuries were a concern for LaCosse during his first year with the Patriots. Not only did he miss two of the Patriots’ first three regular season contests because of his ankle issue, he also had to sit out Weeks 7 through 9 after injuring his knee. Even when he was healthy, though, his impact on the offense was limited: no matter if as a run blocker, pass protector, or receiver, the veteran did little to elevate New England’s struggling offense and to noticeably distinguish himself from fellow tight ends Benjamin Watson and Ryan Izzo.
All in all, LaCosse appeared in 12 of the Patriots’ 17 games during the 2019 season and was on the field for 466 of a possible 1,210 offensive snaps (38.5%). As the team’s number two receiving tight end behind Watson and number one all-around/blocking option at the position, he registered 13 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown — not enough to move the needle. He also surrendered four quarterback hits and two additional hurries when asked to pass block and was inconsistent in the running game.
On top of it all, LaCosse also had virtually no impact on special teams: he was on the field for just five kicking game snaps, with all of them coming on punt coverage during the Patriots’ wild card playoff loss against the Tennessee Titans. What role his nagging ankle and knee injuries played in all of this cannot be properly evaluated from the outside, but either way LaCosse had a disappointing first year in New England’s system.
What is his projected role? While far from on the same level as ex-Patriot Rob Gronkowski, LaCosse plays a similar role as the future Hall of Famer once did: he is an all-around tight end who has shown he can be used both as a receiver and pass protector and also serve as a blocker in the running game. While he had his fair share of issues in both areas last year, his skillset should allow him to be used in such a way within New England’s offensive system.
What is his special teams value? LaCosse was a non-factor on special teams after his arrival in New England, but he does have some experience in the game’s third phase stemming from his time with the Broncos in 2018: Denver used him on all four coverage teams and he was on the field for 102 of a possible 446 kicking game snaps (22.9%) that year. A return to full health could therefore propel the Patriots to give him an increased role in 2020 as well.
Does he have positional versatility? As noted above, LaCosse has the skillset to serve as an all-around option at the tight end position for the Patriots even though he did not quite show it last year. That means that he could line up all over the formation — from playing in-line, to being moved to the slot or flexed out onto the perimeter, to aligning in the backfield in a fullback role. The 27-year-old already did all that last year, and should be expected to be used in similar fashion in 2020 as well.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the final season of the two-year contract he signed with the Patriots last March, LaCosse is on the team’s books with a modest salary cap number of $1.45 million: $1 million in the form of his salary, $300,000 as likely-to-be-earned active roster bonuses ($25,000 per game), and a $150,000 signing bonus proration. If the team decided to part ways with him, only this proration would remain on the cap as dead money while the rest would be cleared off the books. Under the league’s top-51 rule, which is in effect until early September, such a move would create around $650,000 in additional cap space.
What is his roster outlook? Despite being the most experienced tight end on the Patriots’ roster, LaCosse is no lock to make the 53-man squad coming off a disappointing 2019 campaign. With third-round rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene both guaranteed to be on the team this year, the veteran will have to fend off third-year man Ryan Izzo and undrafted rookies Jake Burt and Rashod Berry for the third spot on the tight end depth chart — if he convinces the team to keep three players at the position to begin with.