By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
No positional group on the Patriots is in greater need of reinforcements than tight end.
That said, they do have the majority of the 2019 depth chart under contract. Matt LaCosse remains in the fold for just $1 million. Ryan Izzo is also under team control for the next two seasons, but struggled in a full-time role and couldn’t find the field once the Patriots had two healthy tight ends. By the end of 2019, it was clear that the group they fielded wasn’t nearly good enough.
Good news, though. There’s some legitimate tight end talent readily available as easily as on the open market, and the Patriots will have opportunities to upgrade in other ways at this position.
The iron’s hot now. It’s a great time to strike.
Because of this, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Pats enter the 2020 season with mostly, if not completely new tight ends. Because ideally, LaCosse is the No. 2-3 option at best and there’s a rookie or fresh addition pushing Izzo for a roster spot. With a legitimate starter stacked on top.
Fortunately, the Pats have multiple avenues to revamp the tight ends for 2020. Two of the better young TEs in football are hitting free agency. There’s a handful of intriguing prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft that won’t necessarily cost a first-round pick. And they could always make a swap, for the right player and contract. Based on their track record, the Patriots bring in tight ends with prototypical size (6-foot-5 or taller) and the upside to contribute as both a receiver and blocker.
Here’s a closer look at all of the Patriots’ options across the league, and the opportunities they have to make major moves at a position in need of talent.
The open market will be the Patriots’ best bet at adding an impact player, but it will cost them. According to Miguel Benzan’s 2020 cap page at the Boston Sports Journal, the Patriots have about $21 million in cap space if you count a $36.75 million hit to keep Tom Brady. Either way, they’ll likely need to spend in the range of $8-10 million per season on one of the best available TEs. It could be even more if 49ers TE George Kittle sets a new market with an extension before free agency begins. So while it would take sacrifices elsewhere on the roster to make a big move happen, the space is there.
Hunter Henry, Chargers
Henry would make an immediate impact as a pass-catcher. He runs solid routes, gets separation, and catches the ball rather consistently. He’s also a skilled blocker and would be an upgrade in that department, too. Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn described Henry as “one of the better combo tight ends in the game, no doubt” in December.
“I like to be a guy who’s able to block too,” Henry told the L.A. Times in December. “Some people don’t take that into account. I get excited to spring a big run or get those other guys open. It’s just how it flows sometimes. It’s not that big a deal to me.”
The big concern with Henry is injuries. In 2016 he suffered a concussion but didn’t miss time. In 2017 he lacerated his kidney in Week 15 and missed the final two games. In 2018 he tore his ACL during OTAs and missed the entire season. And he started the 2019 season healthy, but fractured the tibial plateau in his left knee and spent four weeks on the shelf. But his injury history could also mean he can be had for just 1-2 years on a new deal. And as long as he stayed on the field, he’d be a legitimate weapon, arguably the best available among the most realistic options.
Austin Hooper, Falcons
You may remember Hooper from his touchdown catch for the Falcons in Super Bowl LI against the Patriots. Or maybe you forgot about that because, well, yeah. But Hooper is legit, arguably the NFL’s best pass-catcher at the position not named Kelce. Hooper is coming off a career-best 75 catches, 787 yards, and six touchdowns in 13 games – a pret-tayyy, pret-tayyyyy, pret-ty good 92-969-7 line over a full season.
There are drawbacks beyond the price tag that could give the Patriots pause. Hooper is known more for his receiving than his blocking, but Falcons head coach Dan Quinn lauded him as “a guy that plays all downs in all spots” who had an “excellent” all-around season. The receiving part is undeniable.
The other concern is that the Falcons intend to make a real push to keep Hooper. GM Thomas Dimitroff called him “one of the next important players in line” for an extension. That could be an issue for them, because they currently stand with only $6 million in cap space. No matter where he ends up, Hooper is healthy and coming off a career year and should be in line to get big-market money at age 25. The Patriots would be in good hands if they somehow lured him away from Atlanta.
Tyler Eifert, Bengals
Eifert falls into the category of a player who has long established what he is – a good pass-catcher and red zone target who has the ideal size at the position – and won’t come at a high price tag. Unfortunately, in Eifert’s case that’s because of injuries. My god, the injuries. He managed to play all 16 games for the first time in his career in 2019, but it had to be on a pitch count. He averaged only 30.7 offensive snaps per game.
That said, Eifert still caught 43 balls for 436 yards and three touchdowns. All of those numbers are better than all four Patriots tight ends who caught passes last season – combined. In fact, 18 tight ends across the league put up better numbers than all Patriots tight ends. Even with limited snaps, he proved that when healthy he can still get separation and make plays over the middle of the field.
This is to say that Eifert – along with other veteran options like Jason Witten and Greg Olsen – would be cost-effective, proven commodities. Their experience would bode well for them to click with Brady (or whoever’s at QB). And they’re still a virtual guarantee to produce better than everything they tried in 2019.
The most intriguing way for the Patriots to add a premium pass-catcher is to recreate the Brandin Cooks trade from 2017. It would involve moving their No. 23 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft for a proven, dynamic weapon like Cooks was three years ago. If you were to make something close to an apples-to-apples comparison at tight end … how about Zach Ertz from the Eagles? Philly has satisfied their guarantees as he hits the back end of a five-year extension, the Patriots could pay him $8 million next season then opt out of the final year if they wanted, and Ertz is as dynamic as anyone at the position.
However! The below options are more realistic, and may not cost a first-rounder like Ertz certainly would. So while it’s fun to dream bigger, these names are more sensible and could deliver tremendous value.
O.J. Howard, Buccaneers
The Patriots reportedly inquired on Howard before the 2019 trade deadline and were told no. They were likely looking to get him at a good price, because he has not lived up to his status as a 2017 first-round pick. But Howard does possess the physical traits the Patriots look for at 6-foot-6 and 251 pounds, and he still has untapped potential.
Bucs head coach Bruce Arians openly admitted he wasn’t terribly interested in tapping into that potential as a pass-catcher. He continued his usual style of de-emphasizing tight ends in the passing game. Tampa finished 12th in the NFL in tight end targets (117) despite having the third-most total targets (606). Josh McDaniels, on the other hand, clearly wants to run “12”, “21”, and “22” personnel and target tight ends through the air, as evidenced by his consistent attempts to do so – even with players who struggled to produce at a high level.
Howard would be far more athletic than anyone they had at their disposal since the loss of Rob Gronkowski. He can high-point the ball and make contested catches when he’s at his best. ESPN‘s analytics department also ranked him as the best pass-blocking tight end in the NFL in 2019. What could prevent the Pats from getting Howard is if they don’t want to part with pick No. 23, because Tampa could hold onto Howard and get a compensatory third for him. So the Pats, who already jettisoned their second-rounder for Mohamed Sanu, would likely need to do better than just their own third (No. 87) to make a deal happen.
Delanie Walker, Titans
The Titans could create over $6.4 million in cap space by cutting Walker outright. So they’re not going to get much for him in any potential trade. Would the Patriots make him their newest veteran acquisition through a swap of low draft picks, the same method that brought Jason McCourty to New England?
There are complications to such a move. Walker is undersized (6-foot-2, 248 pounds) compared to what the Patriots usually like in a tight end. Injuries are a real concern. He broke and dislocated his ankle in Week 1 of 2018 and missed the rest of the season, then the injury lingered into 2019 until he went back on injured reserve in November. And at age 35, his best days are likely behind him. So $6.4 million isn’t exactly an attractive number for him, either.
Still, Walker is as proven as any active tight end in the league. From 2014-17, he averaged a 78-940-5 line. He’s also a capable blocker despite his size. He’d have as good a chance as any TE to pick up the offense and click with Brady if he stayed healthy. The question is whether they’d be willing to pay $6.4 million and part with a draft pick to see if it happens.
Demetrius Harris, Browns
You may recognize the name Demetrius Harris from the Patriots’ win over the Browns in Week 8 of 2019. Harris caught a touchdown in that game after Baker Mayfield found him matched up against Dont’a Hightower at the goal line. He went up and got the ball like the former basketball player he is.
Harris would be more of a complementary piece than someone who transforms the Patriots offense overnight. But, and this bears repeating, his three touchdowns in 2019 were more than all Patriots tight ends combined. He stands at a towering 6-foot-7, and while he’s a relatively slight 230 pounds that height is attractive.
After playing only basketball in college before switching to football, Harris has finally started to show improvement as a pass-catcher in the past two seasons, his fifth and sixth in the league. The Patriots may need to make it worth the Browns’ while to part with Harris and his $2.5 million contract, but they may also get more out of him than the Browns and Chiefs ever did.
One major reason that the Patriots are in such a bind at tight end right now is that they’ve mostly neglected the position in the draft over the years. Since drafting Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010, the Pats haven’t taken a tight end higher than the fifth round. The ones they did pick (Izzo, A.J. Derby, Lee Smith) have a combined 106 catches in 154 games since 2011.
Meanwhile, the league’s world-class tight ends (and some otherwise solid players) are either locked up with the teams that drafted them or on the way to big paydays. So guys Kittle, Kyle Rudolph, Jack Doyle, Tyler Higbee, and Cameron Brate realistically aren’t on the table. Bill Belichick isn’t one to pay a long-term deal that he didn’t structure himself.
The good news, though, is that the Patriots proved with Gronkowski and Hernandez that they’re capable of identifying immediately impactful talent at tight end. They’re not actually going to find the next Gronk, especially not in a 2020 class that is generally not considered deep. But there are prospects that could fit well for what the Patriots typically seek at the position and could have the potential to make their mark as soon as year 1.
Adam Trautman, Dayton
Trautman has the ideal size at 6-foot-6 and 251 pounds. He showed abilities as both a receiver and blocker at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., proving that he wasn’t just a fluke against weak competition at Dayton (via The Athletic). He played in a pro style offense and showed off his ball skills for Dayton OC Austin King. And not only is he a former basketball player, he is a converted quarterback. Kid’s a lacrosse game away from being a Bill Belichick shoo-in.
Cole Kmet, Notre Dame
Kmet’s draft stock is rising and he could end up being the first tight end off the board. He has good size (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) and has played all over the field for the Notre Dame offense. He’s not necessarily the fastest or the best separator, but he has good ball skills and can be a weapon up the seam and in the red zone. Sound familiar?
Colby Parkinson, Stanford
A polished football mind, Parkinson comes from a program that has produced legit pros like Ertz, Hooper, and Levine Toilolo. His combination of size (6-foot-7, 240 pounds) makes him a mismatch as a downfield receiver. He needs to work on getting leverage as a blocker and may be raw as a route-runner, but he has proven able to make contested catches. Perhaps Belichick looks at Parkinson and sees a talented prospect that he can coach up.
Thaddeus Moss, LSU
The name alone is worth a look. Yes, Thaddeus is the son of Randy Moss, one of the greatest wide receivers in NFL history and a record-setter for the Patriots. Thaddeus played tight end for the national champion LSU Tigers, though, and he was the most productive one in the school’s history with 47 catches, 570 yards, and four touchdowns. He’s a bit undersized at 6-foot-3 and 249 pounds and has been criticized for a lack of consistency. But he has flashed abilities as both a pass-catcher and blocker during his time at LSU and, as the offspring of one of the most special talents the league has ever seen, he’ll make an intriguing prospect for whoever takes him. He can probably be had on day 2.
What Would You Do?
The only real problems with the Patriots’ tight end situation is that they aren’t going to find anyone near Gronk in his prime, and the best guys in the league are ostensibly locked in with their current teams. They’ll have to settle for second-tier options, but guys who can still make a real impact on the offense – immediately. Regardless of who they end up adding, they will almost certainly improve upon what was a dismal 2019 for the 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.