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Patriots 2021 free agency preview: New England has multiple options to upgrade at tight end

Related: Patriots free agency preview: New England needs to invest in its wide receiver position

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When Rob Gronkowski announced his (as it later turned out, temporary) retirement from the NFL following the 2018 season, the New England Patriots lost their best offensive skill position player and number one tight end of the last nine years. While trying to replace a player of his caliber one-for-one was an unrealistic endeavor to begin with, the Patriots have not gotten anything noteworthy out of the position in the two seasons since Gronkowski’s departure.

The tight end spot is therefore still a major need for the team, and one that might be addressed this offseason yet again. Sure, New England invested third-round draft picks in Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene just a year ago, but the two youngsters each had quiet rookie years and are no surefire projections heading into the 2021 season. Accordingly, the Patriots might look at the free agency market to bolster the position.

Before digging into the free agent options that might be available later this month, let’s first take a closer look at who New England currently has under contract for the 2021 season at the position:

  • Devin Asiasi
  • Rashod Berry*
  • Ryan Izzo
  • Dalton Keene
  • Matt LaCosse

*spent his college career at tight end and linebacker but was used exclusively on defense in 2020

Even if Asiasi and Keene show significant improvement in Year Two, the depth alongside them needs to be addressed. Ryan Izzo had some moments as a blocker the last two years but is not a consistent threat in the receiving game; Matt LaCosse struggled with injuries in 2019 and later decided to opt out of the 2020 season. While Izzo and LaCosse have more experience than the youngsters, they cannot be counted on to be anything more than role players.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at free agent tight ends — in case you are wondering the order is alphabetical and nothing else — New England might be interested in adding under the right conditions.

Mo Alie-Cox

Free agency status: Restricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Indianapolis Colts

2020 statistics: 15 games; 31 catches, 394 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns

The Colts used a three-player rotation at tight end in 2020, and Mo Alie-Cox was its most productive member in terms of receptions and yards. While his receiving talent is intriguing given his past production and 6-foot-5 frame, his biggest asset might be his ability to block: Alie-Cox is one of the better blocking tight ends in football, and as such could help the Patriots upgrade at the point of attack.

The biggest question when it comes to the 26-year-old is what it would cost to bring him aboard and how feasible it would be. A former undrafted free agent, the Colts could very well decide to place the second-round tender on him to keep him in the fold. Accordingly, the Patriots might have to pay him upwards of around $3.3 million and give up a second-round draft selection. Is Alie-Cox worth that much? If he only gets tendered at the original level, however, New England should certainly give him a look.

Dan Arnold

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Arizona Cardinals

2020 statistics: 16 games; 31 catches, 438 receiving yards, 4 receiving touchdowns

While not offering much in the blocking department, Dan Arnold has some traits as a receiver to build upon. His 6-foot-6 frame could generate matchup problems in the red zone, for example, while he could also offer some value in the intermediate area and down the seam. Arnold will likely not be too costly an option despite coming off a career year, but he could help improve New England’s passing game depth.

Jared Cook

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 34

2020 team: New Orleans Saints

2020 statistics: 15 games; 37 catches, 504 receiving yards, 7 receiving touchdowns

The Patriots already tried to acquire Jared Cook back in 2019, but he opted to join the Saints shortly before Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement. Two years later, Cook is available again. Coming off a solid but comparatively pedestrian season by his usual receiving standards, and considering his age, his market might be more quiet and in turn favorable for New England this time around.

If the Patriots want to add starter-level talent and experience alongside Asiasi and Keene, Cook could very well be their guy. Considering that the Saints released him last week, he also would not count against the compensatory draft picks formula.

Gerald Everett

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 27

2020 team: Los Angeles Rams

2020 statistics: 16 games; 41 catches, 417 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdowns

In two career games against the Patriots, Everett has caught just one 9-yard pass on four targets. Despite a lack of production, New England might be interested in bringing him aboard: he is a versatile player that has been solid as a receiving tight end in the past, and also looked good blocking in the running game. While not as good a pass protector as other free agent tight ends, he could carve out a role in New England as a rotational do-it-all player.

However, the Patriots could decide they already have a player like that on their roster in the form of Dalton Keene. If they feel confident about the second-year man, they might prefer to go with him rather than the more expensive Everett. In the best-case scenario, Keene develops into a viable flex tight end at a fraction of what the former Ram will cost.

Hunter Henry

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Los Angeles Chargers

2020 statistics: 14 games; 60 catches, 613 receiving yards, 4 receiving touchdowns

First things first: there is a realistic chance Hunter Henry does not even make it to the open market. With Justin Herbert looking like a legitimate franchise quarterback during his 2020 rookie season, the Chargers will likely try to surround him with as much talent as possible. Seeing them place the franchise tag on Henry for the second straight year would therefore not be a surprise in order to keep one of the NFL’s better tight ends around.

If he enters free agency, however, the Patriots should seriously consider getting Henry on board. He is pretty good at what he does, after all: the former second-round draft pick is a productive and versatile player and also has proven himself a strong blocker and reliable pass catcher. At only 26 years old, he also is just entering his prime and therefore can be considered a true TE1 and upgrade over who New England currently has available.

The biggest question is whether or not the team would feel confident in giving Henry a top-of-the-market deal at more than $12 million per year. Not only is that a lot of money invested in one player, Henry also has missed 26 of a possible 82 career games and has no full 16-game season on his five-year résumé.

Tyler Kroft

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 28

2020 team: Buffalo Bills

2020 statistics: 10 games; 12 catches, 119 receiving yards, 3 receiving touchdowns

The Patriots are no strangers to bringing division rivals on board in free agency. While Tyler Kroft will come nowhere near to the contract ex-Bill Stephon Gilmore signed in New England four years ago, he could be a solid addition to the offense and offer experienced depth behind Asiasi and Keene — serving as an in-line player capable of helping out in the running game and, given his 6-foot-6 frame, the red area.

Like Gerald Everett, however, he also has not shined when going against the Patriots in the past. Kroft has played four games versus New England, catching just three passes for 30 yards.

Marcedes Lewis

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 37

2020 team: Green Bay Packers

2020 statistics: 15 games; 10 catches, 107 receiving yards, 3 receiving touchdowns

Back when the Patriots drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, they had them learn the tight end position behind veteran Alge Crumpler. Marcedes Lewis could be New England’s Crumpler 2.0 — an experienced player who could serve not just as a leader but still has value due to his strong run-blocking and pass protection. While Lewis is no longer a premier receiver given his age, he could become a valuable and comparatively cheap addition to the Patriots’ tight end room.

Chris Manhertz

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 29

2020 team: Carolina Panthers

2020 statistics: 16 games; 6 catches, 52 receiving yards

Like the aforementioned Mo Alie-Cox and Marcedes Lewis, Chris Manhertz is also one of the NFL’s better blocking tight ends. In fact, he might just be the best of the bunch and as such could very well be on the Patriots’ radar. Manhertz will likely cost only a fraction of what Alie-Cox (let alone Hunter Henry or Jonnu Smith) will command, while he is significantly younger than Lewis or Jared Cook.

Manhertz will not suddenly turn into a regular receiving threat at this point in his career. If the Patriots feel like they want to give Asiasi and Keene top billing as the receiving option at the position, bringing him aboard as a complementary player would make plenty of sense.

Kyle Rudolph

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 31

2020 team: Minnesota Vikings

2020 statistics: 12 games; 28 catches, 334 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdowns

Kyle Rudolph has reportedly already expressed interest in joining the Patriots after his release from the Vikings, but, as always, the market will decide where he ends up. If other teams offer more than New England, it is doubtful he will join the club just to play with [insert name here] at quarterback. That said, the 31-year-old might still have some good years in him — and be it as a rotational player alongside the young tight ends and a mentor in the meeting room.

Jonnu Smith

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Tennessee Titans

2020 statistics: 15 games; 41 catches, 448 receiving yards, 8 receiving touchdowns

If Hunter Henry is the number one tight end to enter unrestricted free agency this year, Jonnu Smith is a close number two. He is an impressive run blocker and pretty good in the pass protection department as well, was used as a versatile chess piece in the Titans’ passing game, and is capable of generating yards after the catch — something New England very much likes out of its tight ends.

Like Henry, Smith is still relatively young. One major difference between the two is that the latter has missed just four games over the course of his four-year career. He will command TE1 money just like Henry, but all things considered Smith might be seen as the better investment from the Patriots’ point of view: his reliability and similar skillset in terms of blocking and receiving — all while likely costing less than Henry — make him a top-tier player at the position.

The biggest question, as always, will be the market. If Henry indeed gets tagged for a second time, teams might jump onto Smith and drive the price up. New England has the financial capability to outbid most teams, but also a financial discipline that others may not possess.

Robert Tonyan

Free agency status: Restricted free agent

Opening day age: 27

2020 team: Green Bay Packers

2020 statistics: 16 games; 52 catches, 586 receiving yards, 11 receiving touchdowns

If the Patriots want to tap into the restricted free agents well, Robert Tonyan is another player worth considering. Coming off the best season of his career and still just 26 years old, he is an ascending player that might be worth a long-term deal and second-round draft pick if the Packers tender him at that level. It would be a hefty price to pay, but if New England does not feel good about Asiasi and Keene one that might be worth the investment.

Patriots outlook

The Patriots need to get better production out of their tight end position, and it all depends on how they view Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. If they feel confident they can make a sizable jump after relatively quiet rookie seasons and become regular contributors especially in the passing game, bringing Chris Manhertz or Marcedes Lewis aboard as complementary blocking options would make plenty of sense.

If New England does not feel good about the position’s outlook, however, paying top dollar is probably the way to go (unless you hope for Kyle Pitts to be in your draft range). Out of the top-tier options — Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Robert Tonyan — the former Titan is probably the best fit in terms of durability and past production in the passing and running games. While it might take $10 million a year to bring him in, the Patriots need to upgrade the tight end position.

Unless Asiasi and Keene have Bill Belichick’s trust, Smith appears to be New England’s best option in free agency.