Welcome to the 'Future of Foxboro' series, where we will spotlight potential picks for the New England Patriots in the 2019 NFL Draft. Through in-depth research and educated guesses, we'll peg the most likely picks for the first round and beyond at positions of need.
By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots have a tight end problem.
It's certainly not a death rattle for the Patriots dynasty. It won't preclude them from winning most of their schedule. Austin Seferian-Jenkins could stay healthy and take his game to another level. Jacob Hollister could still emerge after a preseason hamstring injury derailed his sophomore season. Matt LaCosse could reach new heights with Tom Brady throwing him the ball and Bill Belichick coaching him up. Ryan Izzo, a 2018 seventh-rounder who spent his rookie season on IR, could be serviceable. Stephen Anderson could find ways to contribute with a full offseason to get ready.
And most importantly, the No. 1 tight end - like almost any other spot on the roster - won't singularly prevent the Pats from an AFC Championship berth (or better) in 2019. So "problem" is a little loosely-defined here.
But field a Rob Gronkowsk-less the depth chart, and suddenly you're racked with uncertainty. Bill Belichick can't be a fan of that. Combine that with a deep tight end class in the 2019 NFL Draft, and the Patriots have a big opportunity for a post-Gronk reset.
It wouldn't be unprecedented in the Belichick era.
A Brief History...
In 2010, after the departure of former first-rounder Ben Watson, Belichick signed veteran tight end Alge Crumpler. He supplemented that addition when he moved up in the second round of the draft to take Gronkowski, then took another Tight End Who Shall Not Be Named. Belichick homered into the upper deck in that draft, thanks to Gronkowski's unforgettable impact.
The Pats have pick No. 32 again this year, the same spot where they took Watson in 2004. Belichick also drafted Daniel Graham two years prior at 21st overall. So of all the positions the Hoodie could take when day 1 of the 2019 NFL Draft winds down on Thursday, tight end might be the least surprising.
Let's call Seferian-Jenkins the Crumpler for a new generation. So who's joining him out of the 2019 draft class?
A New Era...
It's unfathomable at this point that Belichick would forgo this year's crop of tight ends. Then again we expected him to dip into the linebackers or quarterbacks near the top of the 2018 draft, and he waited until the sixth and seventh rounds to address those positions. So it's dangerous to covet any one prospect or positional group. Belichick and Nick Caserio just want good football players. They won't reach for a tight end over a better player just because they need a tight end.
But the short-term and long-term needs are real, and so is the talent level at tight end at the top of the 2019 draft. It's a deep class in terms of NFL-caliber prospects. But it's also top-heavy. At least two tight ends from the same school are expected to go in the first round, T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant of Iowa. The Patriots have shown interest in both, but they'd likely have to trade up from No. 32 in order to land them on Thursday night. That wouldn't be unprecedented, either. But knowing how Belichick operates, it's more likely he trades down than up.
The purpose of this whole series will be to highlight the best possible first-round pick for them at a given position. So for simplicity's sake, let's keep the Patriots right at No. 32. There's a clear choice for them at tight end in this range, if not lower in the second round. But if they take a tight end at 32, it's likely this guy.
The Pick: Irv Smith Jr., Alabama
Force me to describe Smith in a single word and I'd tell you "smooth". In a text message I'd put three o's. Smith is a very good athlete who runs fluid routes and makes catching look easy. He's also proficient as a blocker with potential for more, particularly against the run. What Smith lacks in elite speed he compensates with savvy elusiveness. He doesn't look like a prototypical tight end at 6-foot-2 and 242 pounds, but he has the athleticism and tools to play like one.
Smith can be a passing game weapon right away no matter who drafts him, and his all-around upside may entice Belichick to be the one to develop him. Smith's route-running could give him a chance to top the depth chart at some point in 2019 if he can quickly build trust with Tom Brady. Considering his grooming under Nick Saban at Alabama, Smith probably won't be intimidated by an NFL playbook. Not even the Patriots.
But that of course starts with drafting Smith in the first place. He appears likely to peel off the board somewhere between picks 32 and 56, both of which are in the Patriots' arsenal. If Belichick doesn't trade up for his first pick, and neither Fant nor Hockenson plummet to 32, then Smith makes the most sense. Any other tight end at that spot would be a Belichickian surprise.
What wouldn't is Belichick dipping back into the Alabama pool. He attended the school's Pro Day, complete with Crimson Tide gear. Smith personally met him and celebrated it on Twitter.
— Irvin Smith Jr. (@swervinirvin_) March 21, 2019
It's always hard to read Belichick as to how highly he rates the prospects he meets. But there's little doubt that Smith is somewhere on his draft board, and could be high enough to be their first pick of the 2019 draft. It would be a strong first step in the post-Gronk era.
What about later?
Belichick taking Smith at 32 shouldn't impact his ability to take another tight end later in the draft, much like his 2010 strategy. Here are some other names to know ahead of the weekend, because there's a chance they find themselves on the New England depth chart.
-- Jace Sternberger, Texas A&M. Reportedly met with the Patriots privately. Projects as a dynamic pass-catching tight end with a lower ceiling as a blocker. He'd be an exciting prospect for the passing game. He lacks upside as a combo tight end, so he's expected to be a second or third-round pick.
-- Dawson Knox, Ole Miss. Big, athletic, and competitive. He has more potential than Sternberger as an all-around tight end due to his experience as a run-blocker, and he's a capable receiver over the middle of the field. His upside only showed up in flashes, though, so he's not getting as much hype as other tight ends who will be drafted above him.
-- Isaac Nauta, Georgia. The Bulldogs connection is obvious. On the Georgia culture and why so many of their players have gone to the Patriots, Nauta said at the Combine: "We practice the right way, we set a standard of how we play, and I think that translates kind of to what [the Patriots] do." He needs work as a blocker and lacks ideal size at 6-foot-3. But like other tight ends that Belichick has studied closely this year, Nauta is an NFL-caliber pass-catcher. He should be available in the fourth round or later.
-- Kaden Smith, Stanford. Third-best three-cone drill time among all tight ends at the Combine. The Patriots love that thing. He went to Stanford so he's wicked smaht ked. Smith's scouting reports describe him as likely an average tight end at the NFL level, but one who could contribute as both a blocker and receiver in a reserve role. Seems like a good project for Belichick to develop out of the later rounds.
Belichick may take one or two of the names mentioned in this story. And it would truly signify the end of the Gronkowski era. It'll be hard to find a better year to reset.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].