One of the New England Patriots’ first major moves this offseason was shipping out tight end Jonnu Smith in exchange for a late-round draft pick. Several days later, the team added Mike Gesicki to its tight end room in free agency.
While Gesicki and Hunter Henry are projected large parts of New England’s offense in 2023, it should be expected that the Patriots dip into this year’s tight end draft class. Beyond the top pair, practice squad players Matt Sokol and Scotty Washington are the only other tight ends under contract. None of the four are signed beyond this season.
Unlike this year’s wide receivers class, the tight end class is considered one of the strongest in modern history. The Patriots will again have all sorts of paths during the draft to add legitimate talent at the position, so let’s explore their potential opportunities.
Michael Meyer (Notre Dame): Mayer has long been the consensus No. 1 tight end in this year’s class. He leaves Notre Dame as the best tight end in program history, finishing with single-season and career records in catches and receiving yards.
Mayer is not the most explosive athlete at the position, but makes plays with his big frame (6-foot-4, 249 pounds) and play strength. He also is a strong finisher with the ball in his hands. Mayer has an extremely high floor as a prospect due to his pass catching ability and traits in the run game, making him an immediate starting caliber tight end in the NFL.
Dalton Kincaid (Utah): The other top tight end in this year’s class (and one of my personal favorite prospects) is Utah’s Dalton Kincaid. Despite not starting to play football until 2017, Kincaid is arguably the best pure receiver in the draft. While a tad undersized, he flashed great ball skills and yards after the catch ability at Utah, where he led all FBS tight ends last season in receiving yards (74.2) and receptions (5.8) per game.
We'll see how the #Patriots handle their tight end room, but Utah's Dalton Kincaid is reaaaaally fun to watch.— Brian Hines (@iambrianhines) March 8, 2023
Great ball skills with run after the catch ability. Don't like to make comparisons to All-Pros but the way he operates gives off serious Kelce vibes. pic.twitter.com/qE4JKfC1on
From a Patriots perspective, neither player may be worthy of a first-round selection, however. Mayer’s lack of explosiveness would not be a great match with Henry and Gesicki, while Kincaid’s usage could also be redundant of the two.
Darnell Washington (Georgia): Bill Belichick has always preferred his tight ends to be capable blockers as well as impact pass catchers, which brings potential top-50 pick Darnell Washington into the mix. The former Bulldog has the size and elite physical traits that make him the perfect combination of both.
The 6-foot-7, 264 pound Washington was primarily used as a blocker in college. He hauled in just 28 of 43 targets last year for 454 yards and two touchdowns. But, a 4.64-second 40 and 4.08-second 20-yard shuttle at the Combine showed his potential upside as a pass catcher. With Henry and Gesicki already rostered, Washington would have an immediate role as the best blocker of the bunch and the ability to ease into more of a pass catching role.
Luke Musgrave (Oregon State): is another potential top-50 selection. Musgrave is somewhat similar to Kincaid having not played varsity football until his junior year of high school. As then just a two-year starter for the Beavers — also missing time last season due to injury — he certainly has room to grow.
Musgrave has the combination of size and speed teams look for at the tight end position. His 1.54-second 10-yard split topped all tight ends at this year’s Combine. Musgrave’s big frame and catch radius make him a middle of the field target, but he often struggles finishing through contact.
Sam LaPorta (Iowa): The long pipeline of successful Iowa tight ends has a chance to grow even longer this year with LaPorta. Despite all the success the program has seen at the position, he leaves campus as the all-time receptions leader at the position (153).
At 6-foot-3, 245 pounds he plays with outstanding quickness (6.91 three cone) as more of a big slot receiver than traditional tight end. LaPorta is also strong after the catch forcing 20 missed tackles last season. He has shades of Aaron Hernandez to his game.
Tucker Kraft (South Dakota State): Another enticing Day 2 option is Kraft, who the Patriots have met with during the pre-draft process. According to The Athletic, several schools tried to poach Kraft from South Dakota State before the start of last season with significant NIL offers including the Crimson Tide with offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.
Kraft was a three-year starter and lined up all over the field (inline, slot, wing). At 6-foot-5, 254 pounds he recorded an impressive 4.69 40-yard dash and was third among all tight ends with a 7.08-second 3-cone. He has some work to do as a route runner, but he has NFL starting potential written all over him.
Early Day 3
Luke Schoonmaker (Michigan): The Patriots love their Wolverines, which is one of many reasons why Schoonmaker projects as a potential fit. Schoonmaker, who New England also met with at the Shrine Bowl, moves well for a 6-foot-5, 251 pound tight end running a 4.63 40. He also is a solid blocker coming from Michigan’s run-first offense. Schoonmaker would be a quality addition to pair with Henry and Gesicki and could even creep into the end of Day 2.
Zach Kuntz (Old Dominion): Kuntz is one of the most intriguing players in the draft. He is a bit unknown after starting just 15 games in college but his combination of speed/size is in rare company. At 6-foot-7, 255 pounds, Kuntz ran a 4.55-second 40 and topped all tight ends in the three-cone (6.87) and short shuttle (4.12). He also became the tallest player since Combine data began being tracked in 2003 to record a 40-plus inch vertical.
How he translates to the NFL is completely unknown. Kuntz’s play-style and blocking ability has also been compared to Gesicki throughout the pre-draft process. But, his rare traits make him a highly interesting developmental tight end.
Late Day 3
Cameron Latu (Alabama): Latu will be a player worth monitoring due to his familiarity with Bill O’Brien. He is an average prospect in terms of size and athleticism, but is a dependable chain mover due to his route pacing and ability to find holes in the defense. He is also physical in the run game making him a quality year-one backup.
Davis Allen (Clemson): Allen has many traits that projects him as a Patriots fit. He has shown promise as a blocker, was a team-captain, and was a regular on Clemson’s kick and punt coverages. As a tight end, he’s not a dynamic athlete but was productive and dependable as a pass catcher (3.3 percent career drop rate). The 6-foot-6 Allen also proved to be a legit red-zone threat as his 12 career touchdowns were the second best for any tight end in school history.
Payne Durham (Purdue): Similarly to Allen, Durham has several Patriot-traits as well. Durham, who impressed during the Senior Bowl, received much praise from the Boilermakers coaching staff for his leadership and also was a four-year lacrosse player in high-school. On the field, he is extremely tough which shows up in the run game and has a large frame which creates a large catch radius.
Will Mallory (Miami): Mallory projects to be more of an athletic F tight end in the NFL. He has the acceleration to threaten second-level defenders and the speed — top 40-yard dash of any tight end at the Combine (4.54) — to beat safeties as well.
Brayden Willis (Oklahoma): In the blocking department, Willis is an extremely physical blocker and has a finishing attitude. He won’t be a major receiving threat, but would instantly be New England’s best blocking tight end. Willis was also a major special teams contributor for the Sooners.
Jack Colletto (Oregon State): Colletto could also fall into the category as a fullback hybrid. Colletto won the Paul Hornung Award, which is awarded to the most versatile player in college football, and worked with New England during the Shrine Bowl.
As always, other Shrine Bowl tight ends to watch as late Day 3/UDFA options include Blake Whiteheart (Wake Forest) and Daniel Barker (Michigan State).
Jahleel Billingsley (Texas): One real dark horse for New England in the late rounds or as an undrafted free agent is Jahleel Billingsley. The former four-star recruit and once-projected early-round draft pick had a promising two years at Alabama, one under Bill O’Brien, before transferring to Texas. With the Longhorns last season, Billingsley recorded just three total receptions and was suspended for six games. He could be an intriguing low-risk addition to pair back up with O’Brien.