Pats Shopping List: Chances to spend big on a much-needed upgrade at tight end

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By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

The Patriots need to shop for a tight end this offseason. Something nice. It's inevitable. And the reality hasn't changed since Rob Gronkowski retired: no position on the team is in greater need of reinforcements.

Good news, though. First of all, recent reports indicate that the Pats are in the market for tight ends and receivers - via trade. The MMQB's Albert Breer reported that New England is "sniffing around" for options in the market at both positions. For what it's worth, Breer mentioned Mohamed Sanu as a Patriots trade option mere days before the deal went down.

But at tight end, the easier thing to do is to just open up the wallets. Not that Bill Belichick is about to pull a Stephon Gilmore at multiple positions. But this is certainly a year where splashes will be made at tight end. Someone's taking the plunge with some top-end talent at the position. State-of-the-art models.

Consider this your primer for tight ends as NFL free agency creeps. Expect the reports and rumors to really firehose out starting next Monday, March 16 - the start of the legal tampering period. So it's good to be up-to-date with the best (and most realistic) names available who could call Foxborough home next season (and beyond?).

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Dec 15, 2019; Carson, CA, USA; Los Angeles Chargers tight end Hunter Henry (86) makes a catch in front of Minnesota Vikings free safety Harrison Smith (22) in the third quarter at Dignity Health Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 15, 2019; Carson, CA, USA; Los Angeles Chargers tight end Hunter Henry (86) makes a catch in front of Minnesota Vikings free safety Harrison Smith (22) in the third quarter at Dignity Health Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

-- The Chargers are "likely" to place the franchise tag on Hunter Henry if they don't agree to a long-term extension before that, according to Ian Rapoport. The franchise number for tight ends is projected (via Over The Cap) at $11 million. Henry would be the best all-around tight end on the open market if he reached that point. Unfortunately, he doesn't sound terribly likely to get there. But if the Pats made an aggressive move to bring Henry in? Splash.

-- On the flip side is the Falcons' Austin Hooper. GM Thomas Dimitroff confirmed that the team is letting Hooper hit the market. He would absolutely qualify as a dynamic pass-catching tight end for the Patriots offense, especially if Tom Brady ends up staying. His blocking won't exactly bring back Gronk memories, but Hooper would be a significant upgrade in the passing game over literally everyone the Pats rolled out there in 2019. The problem is the Patriots will have competitors, the Packers reportedly among them.

-- Eric Ebron finally got to play with a true top-end quarterback in Andrew Luck's final season with the Colts, and the former first-round pick took off. What sucks is the injury issues he dealt with in prior seasons crept back up in 2019, and he wasn't nearly as productive with Jacoby Brissett throwing him the ball. If the Patriots miss out on the biggest names at the position, Ebron may interest Belichick as a relatively afforable, "hope for the best" option in terms of his durability. But the talent is there and if Brady re-signs and Ebron stays healthy, the payoff could be...

via GIPHY

Talent At A Discount

ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 30: Jason Witten #82 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates after scoring the game winning touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles in overtime at AT&T Stadium on October 30, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. The Dallas Cowboys beat the Philadelphia Eagles 29-23 in overtime. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 30: Jason Witten #82 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates after scoring the game winning touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles in overtime at AT&T Stadium on October 30, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. The Dallas Cowboys beat the Philadelphia Eagles 29-23 in overtime. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

-- The Redskins released veteran Jordan Reed three weeks ago, sending him to NFL free agency early and saving $8.5 million in cap space. Oft-injured but undeniably dynamic, Reed has dealt with several concussions in his career but averaged 81 catches, 830 yards, and six touchdowns per 16 games. And he reportedly wants to keep playing. Reed would make plays in the Pats offense, but obvious injury concerns would make him cheaper than his talent and unreliable to play a full season.

-- Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert has the requisite size and skill set to perform in the Patriots offense, and his veteran experience would appeal to Brady and allow him to pick up the offense quicker than some. But he's also a player with a history of injuries. Good news is that Eifert played in all 16 games for Cincinnati last season ... bad news is he did so on a pitch count, averaging 30.7 snaps and 3.9 targets per game. But as a veteran option in the passing game, Eifert would still be an upgrade over Ben Watson and Matt LaCosse.

-- You want durability? Dependability? Jason Witten fits the bill as a cost-effective veteran where you know what you're going to get. What you're getting, though, is about 60 catches, 600 yards, and a handful of touchdowns. Nothing earth-shattering. You'll get 16 games, though. If Brady's back, he'd almost certainly love having Witten running routes for him. They'd certainly move the ball better between the 20's. Witten is reportedly open to leaving the Cowboys and playing somewhere else if he can't get a regular role in new head coach Mike McCarthy's offense. Just like Brady, Witten may finally be getting the NFL free agency itch.

Bargain Bin...

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - SEPTEMBER 22: Logan Thomas #82 of the Detroit Lions warms up prior to their game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on September 22, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - SEPTEMBER 22: Logan Thomas #82 of the Detroit Lions warms up prior to their game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on September 22, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

-- While the hope is the Patriots have champagne taste in NFL free agency, one lower-level name to keep in your back pocket is Logan Thomas. "Isn't he a quarterback?" you may ask. Thomas did play quarterback at Virginia Tech and then for the Arizona Cardinals, but in 2020 he will play his fourth season as a tight end since converting in 2016. He has prototypical TE size at 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds and has shown willingness to play any kind of role, whether pass-catching or blocking. Barring some magical coaching, it's unlikely Thomas would suddenly become a major factor in New England. But he'd certainly have a chance at helping improve run-blocking and putting together a career-best performance.

-- Look, the Patriots need a pass-catcher more than anything. But their tight ends struggled to block consistently, too. Levine Toilolo would help solve that problem. He was almost exclusively a blocker for the 49ers last season, but he excelled as part of the team's elite running game. The Pats could make a competitive offer for Toilolo without breaking the bank and get some legitimate help in the trenches.

More options for the Patriots in NFL free agency coming later this week, at every major positional group.

PATRIOTS SHOPPING LIST: Quarterbacks

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].