Tight end remains Patriots' biggest unanswered question

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By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

Wide receiver continues to get better and deeper for the Patriots. The returns of both Demaryius Thomas and Josh Gordon added big upside and defied low expectations. Tight end, however, remains as uncertain as it's been all summer.

Veteran Ben Watson will be in the fold and the likely every-down starter when he returns in Week 5, so the Patriots will have more certainty at that point. When he's on the field, Watson should be a safety valve for Tom Brady, secondary red zone threat, and dependable blocker.

Those first four weeks still need to be played, though, and the overreactions are inevitable. But even reasonable observers can admit that below Watson is when the questions begin.

As far as who's making the team, that's closer to being answered than how much those players contribute. Matt LaCosse is a virtual lock, despite missing last week with a sprained ankle. He's back at practice and could see some work in Thursday's dress rehearsal against the Carolina Panthers.

The Patriots still want to run plenty of two-tight end sets this season, as evidenced by some of the basic packages they've showed in the preseason. They also want to be a part of the league's continually growing trend of throwing out of those formations. The Pats were ahead of their time doing that earlier this decade, and it appears they will continue to do it despite losing Rob Gronkowski to retirement.

Matt LaCosse of the New England Patriots celebrates a first down during the first quarter of the preseason game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on August 8, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. New England defeated Detroit 31-3. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Matt LaCosse of the New England Patriots celebrates a first down during the first quarter of the preseason game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on August 8, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. New England defeated Detroit 31-3. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

That's where the competition really lies on the depth chart. LaCosse has potential as a combo tight end behind Watson. But second-year pro Ryan Izzo, the returning Stephen Anderson, veteran Lance Kendricks, and undrafted rookie Andrew Beck haven't distinguished themselves as pass-catchers. Newcomer Eric Saubert may be exclusively a special teamer if he makes the roster.

Izzo and Kendricks appear to be in the lead for jobs behind Watson and LaCosse. If the Patriots opt to roster three tight ends for September, they're probably the guys. So the depth chart may not be as uncertain as it appears on the surface.

The real uncertainty is how effective they will be. Gronkowski, at least for the first seven seasons of his Hall-of-Fame-caliber career, brought the certainty of elite offensive production and run-blocking. It's wholly unfair to expect even close to the same level from anyone on the roster. But it's also wise to expect a drop-off offensively. Especially in the big moments where Gronk delivered so often, even in Super Bowl LIII as a clearly diminished form of himself.

However, there's strong potential that the Patriots will find a group that works for blocking purposes. Izzo has looked solid in that department and Kendricks has practically made a career out of it. The depth at running back, talent on the offensive line, and size at receiver give the Pats' running game a chance to be one of the best in the league.

How much the tight ends factor into the passing game is perhaps the Patriots' biggest unanswered question. And it may not be until well into the season when we get an answer. It's a good problem to have for a team replete with depth and certainty and virtually every other position.

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].