Ever since they selected him in the second round of the NFL’s 2010 draft, Rob Gronkowski served as the undisputed leader of the New England Patriots’ tight end depth chart and one of the most dynamic and dominant weapons in all of football. When he announced his retirement during the 2019 offseason, the Patriots therefore lost one of their offensive focal points and a player who was capable of making game-changing plays no matter the situation or opponent.
Losing the future Hall of Famer was a blow to a unit that already had to deal with other personnel turnover last year. When Gronkowski retired, Dwayne Allen was already with the Miami Dolphins following his release by the Patriots. A month after Gronkowski’s retirement, the club also moved on from Jacob Hollister: the third-year man was traded to the Seattle Seahawks for a conditional 2020 seventh-round draft selection. This left Stephen Anderson as the only tight end remaining who spent time on the active roster at one point in 2019.
Anderson did not last, and neither did offseason acquisitions Lance Kendricks, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Andrew Beck. Eventually, the Patriots spent the majority of the season with a tight end group consisting of free agency signees Matt LaCosse and Benjamin Watson, as well as second-year man Ryan Izzo. Together with short-term addition Eric Tomlinson, the group took a noticeable step back compared to the 2018 season and failed to lift an offense that had its fair share of issues both in the passing and the running game.
Heading into the new season, the Patriots therefore invested considerable resources to rebuild the group: Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene were drafted in the third round, and are locks to make the team this year. The question heading towards training camp will be who ends up alongside them on the 53-man roster.
TE Matt LaCosse, TE Ryan Izzo, FB Jakob Johnson, FB Danny Vitale, TE Jake Burt, TE Rashod Berry
The tight end group competing for roster spots alongside Asiasi and Keene is a mix of experience and youth but lacks any real star-power or proven productivity within New England’s offense.
Matt LaCosse, who was added as an unrestricted free agent last offseason, is heading into his second season in the system and coming off a disappointing year during which he struggled with injuries and registered just 13 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown. Ryan Izzo, meanwhile, did not fare much better: he caught six passes for 114 yards and a score and was effectively demoted to “break glass in case of emergency”-status by the second half of the 2019 season.
Jakob Johnson, on the other hand, had some moments as James Develin’s replacement at fullback last year but did not receive any consistent playing time outside the offensive backfield — his tight end label as used in this context stems mostly from his time in college and the German Football League. The other three names on the list above, Danny Vitale, Jake Burt and Rashod Berry, were all added via the offseason: Vitale, a fullback who could be used in Develin’s versatile role, has a good chance to make the team, while Jake Burt and Rashod Berry will try to carve out roles based on their in-line blocking.
The deciding factors
Positional versatility: New England puts a premium on versatility, and the tight end position is a perfect example for that. The players need to be able to contribute in the passing game and as blockers, and they also have to show their value on special teams or by being able to line up all over the formation. Fullback/tight end hybrid James Develin did this as well as anybody, and his eventual replacement — be he named Danny Vitale or Jakob Johnson — could make other players on the current roster expendable if they are not also able to wear multiple hats.
Blocking technique: Today’s NFL is filled with tight ends that are outstanding pass catchers but lack the technique to also be successful as run blockers or pass protectors — all the things Rob Gronkowski used to do at an absurdly high level. The Patriots want their tight ends to be able to block as well, however, which is why the six men listed above need to be consistent and fundamentally sound in this part of the game. Neither LaCosse nor Izzo were overly convincing in this area last year, and they will therefore need to show some strides.
Quarterback chemistry: With Tom Brady no longer running the show in New England, every tight end on the roster regardless of experience within the team’s offense will have to get used to a new quarterback throwing passes. Whether it is Cam Newton or Jarrett Stidham, the tight ends will have to read coverages properly to make the right decisions on option routes, and need to be in the same location the quarterback expects them to be. If a tight end can’t develop that chemistry and earn the passers’ trust, his tenure in New England will likely be a short one.
Physicality and durability: Tight ends have to show a physical edge if they want to be successful with the Patriots. Not only will they face their fair share of press-man coverage, they also need to be able to move bodies in the running game and when called upon as pass protectors. Bringing the right mindset to the table and not being afraid to either take a hit or finish a block is key here.
Deep receiving skills: While the Patriots’ tight ends usually run their fair share of slants and other short to medium in-breaking routes in the Patriots’ system, they also need to be able to get down the field and win one-on-one matchups if need be. Rob Gronkowski was outstanding in this area during his nine seasons in New England — he dominated down the seam and when going against one-on-one coverage on the outside — but the team failed to properly replace this element in 2019.
While two of the spots on the tight end depth chart are already taken, the competition behind them should be an intriguing one over the course of training camp and (should it take place) preseason. Based on experience, Matt LaCosse should be seen as the favorite to earn the TE3 gig: LaCosse was ahead of Ryan Izzo on the depth chart last year and despite his issues in 2019 is a more proven commodity than any other player fighting for a job alongside Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene.
That said, the Patriots could also opt to go with just the two rookies and instead give more responsibilities to the fullback position if one of them emerges over the next few weeks: James Develin saw plenty of action as a de facto tight end during his time in New England, and if Danny Vitale or Jakob Johnson can do the same a third tight end might be seen as more of a luxury than a necessity in terms of roster construction.
From the current perspective, however, the job still seems to be LaCosse’s to lose. What he does have to do, however, is convince the coaching staff that the team as a whole would be better off with three tight ends than having an additional layer of depth elsewhere.