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2021 Patriots draft profile: Could Pat Freiermuth live up to his ‘Baby Gronk’ nickname in New England?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 Cotton Bowl Classic - Memphis v Penn State Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ tight end situation is in disarray. Since Rob Gronkowski’s temporary retirement in March of 2019 — a span of 33 games — tight ends wearing Patriots uniforms have combined for 55 catches for 673 yards and three touchdowns. There were nine tight ends that produced better numbers by themselves in 2020 alone. Something needs to change and it needs to change fast.

Following 2019’s uninspiring performance, the Patriots looked to revamp the group through the draft by spending a pair of third-round picks on Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. The group somehow got worse as the two only produced five catches for 55 yards and one touchdown.

That’s not to say that the two won’t produce in the future — as Bill Belichick mentioned on a number of occasions, the class of 2020 had as hard a time adjusting to NFL life as any with the stringent protocols they faced and lack of preparation prior to the season. Unfortunately for them, fellow rookies Kyle Dugger and Michael Onwenu were able to step in and contribute almost immediately.

The Patriots could opt to acquire a tight end in free agency; Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith are popular options whose names have been thrown out pretty regularly, and there are also some restricted free agents like Mo Alie-Cox and Robert Tonyan as well as former free agent target Jared Cook. If free agency doesn’t work out again, however, perhaps they dip back into the draft.

If they do they could add a bit of hometown flavor, who had the nickname “Baby Gronk” bestowed upon him in his home state of Massachusetts.

Name: Pat Freiermuth

Position: Tight End

School: Penn State (Junior)

Opening day age: 22

2019 stats: 4 games; 23 catches, 310 yards, 1 touchdown.

Size: 6’5”, 250 lbs

Expected round: Early 2nd

Strengths: Freiermuth fits the bill of a classic mismatch tight end. He is too big for defenders. He showed throughout his career that he can dabble in multiple spots as he lined up in the slot and backfield a lot early in his career. Once he became a bigger part of the Nittany Lion offense he stuck to the more traditional in-line spot.

As a receiver, Freiermuth is very good. He understands leverage well and runs smart routes, working to create throwing lanes for his quarterback. He’s got strong, reliable hands that engulf the football. His best attribute, however, may be his body positioning and quickness, especially in the red zone. Freiermuth fully understands that he’s 6-foot-5 and there isn’t a single person covering him with that size as he shields defenders from the ball and just plucks it out of the air.

In the middle of the field he works best within five yards of the line of scrimmage. He also has very quick feet for a guy his size and can create separation on real-life cornerbacks.

Freiermuth is a good blocker as well. He worked a lot on wham blocks, coming across the offensive formation to deliver a hit on the back side. He’s controlled and cerebral, keeping a wide base and delivering his blocks with his hips and hands, not his shoulders. He wasn’t asked to do much pass pro but showed he could, the same could be said down at the goal line as he was usually the focal point of the offense down there.

Weaknesses: The only true comparison I can make between Freiermuth and Gronkowski is the way they run, it’s almost as if they’re constantly falling down but trying to hold their footing. Gronkowski gets away with it because tacklers just bounce off of him and keep him upward. Freiermuth, on the other hand, is nowhere near as strong a runner and on more than a few occasions tripped over his own feet. There isn’t much yards-after-the-catch ability if he’s not given a ton of space.

He also isn’t much of a vertical threat, he’s tremendous in the red zone but struggled to make an impact in the middle of the field. Most of the routes he consistently ran came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. His straight-line speed also isn’t enough to beat defensive backs vertically.

Finally, the injuries. Though he hasn’t had many of them, the shoulder ailment that kept him out for most of 2020 is not something to be scoffed at. His success is reliant on the ability to out-reach his opponents and deliver blows, and you can’t do that with a bum shoulder. There would need to be 100 percent assurance that the injury would not be recurring for the Patriots to even think about making that pick early in the draft.

What would be his role? Any tight end on the Patriots’ roster headed into the 2021 season would be fighting for the number one role. After two years of horrendous play it would be stupid not to give everyone a fair shot, especially if it is based on experience in the system: the experience they have is a bad one.

Does he have positional versatility? At the tight end position, absolutely. Freiermuth made a name for himself at Penn State by being versatile and effective from the slot and the backfield, he really didn’t play traditional tight end until Year 2. When lined up in the backfield he did a lot of blocking but caught the occasional pass off of play action. In the slot he ran slants, and he ran them very well.

He’s not able to lineup any further out than that as his speed just isn’t there.

Who’s his competition? If there is any, it would be Devin Asiasi. Of the three Patriots tight ends that saw meaningful snaps in 2020 — Asiasi, Keene, Ryan Izzo — Asiasi was the most versatile and gave the offense the best chance to succeed. He got open pretty consistently and did a great job blocking. The other rookie tight end, Dalton Keene, will probably see a change in role. After spending his college years as an H-back, the Patriots had Keene play in a more traditional role in-line and running routes from the slot. Expect to see a lot more of Keene in the backfield.

Why the Patriots? Other than the obvious connection of a kid from Merrimac, MA coming to play for his hometown team, Freiermuth’s best chance to develop as a tight end would come in this offense. The team could also use another dominating presence in the red zone to beef up their offense in this part of the field, which ranked 24th in the NFL inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. The team desperately needs to find a starting-caliber tight end, and Freiermuth presents more of a sure thing than their current options.

Why not the Patriots? Would Bill Belichick really dip back into the draft this early for another tight end? When you don’t see an upgrade at a position after spending valuable assets at them, you usually don’t go back and spend more. Signing a free agent tight end would be a much safer option than drafting one.

Verdict: Under the right circumstances, the Patriots should absolutely consider Freiermuth. If they sign some wide receivers in free agency and find their potential quarterback of the future in Round One, what better option is there at pick No. 46? Freiermuth could very well be the final piece to the puzzle on offense.