New England Patriots

Nov 6, 2021; West Lafayette, Indiana, USA; Michigan State Spartans running back Connor Heyward (11) catches the ball while Purdue Boilermakers cornerback Jamari Brown (7) defends in the first quarter at Ross-Ade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
  • Putting the cards on the table right away, this post will mainly be about fullbacks. With Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Devin Asiasi, and Dalton Keene still on the roster, tight end may be at the bottom of the Patriots’ list of needs. Given the lack of playing time available, it doesn’t seem likely they’d invest draft capital at the position.

    For the first time in a long time, the Patriots don’t have a true fullback on their roster. With Jakob Johnson signing with the Raiders in free agency, the top of the depth chart is wide open, with no obvious in-house replacement on the roster.

    The first question about filling the hole at fullback is – do the Patriots want to fill it? Following his departure, Johnson told German news agency DPA that the Patriots told him they “will no longer have my position on the roster.”

    Whether that means a blocking fullback, or fullback as a whole is unclear. However, the Patriots have brought in more utility fullbacks in recent years in players like Keene and Danny Vitale, although none have stuck to this point. Did they move on from Johnson to continue that experiment this year? Keene could be a candidate for that role, but the team could look to the draft to fill that role as well. If they do, here are a couple of names that stand out…

  • Connor Heyward, Michigan State

    Nov 13, 2021; East Lansing, Michigan, USA; Michigan State Spartans running back Connor Heyward (11) runs for a touchdown during the second quarter against the Maryland Terrapins at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 13, 2021; East Lansing, Michigan, USA; Michigan State Spartans running back Connor Heyward (11) runs for a touchdown during the second quarter against the Maryland Terrapins at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

    “Just give him to the Patriots, they’ll figure out exactly how to use him,” NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah remarked as Heyward ran a 4.72 40 at the NFL Combine earlier this month. Heyward’s college career is an idea background for a move tight end – he played his first three seasons as a running back before switching to tight end in 2021.

    At 5-foot-11, 233 pounds, Heyward should have no problem contributing as a blocker in both the running and passing games. He has experience lining up across the formation and can execute blocks both from the backfield and lined up inline. At the same time, he’s no stranger to having the ball in his hands – he totaled 211 carries and 96 catches in 45 career games with the Spartans. Heyward – whose older brother Cam plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers – is currently projected to be a seventh-round pick.

  • Zander Horvath, Purdue

    Purdue running back Zander Horvath (40) runs the ball during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021 at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette.

    Purdue running back Zander Horvath (40) runs the ball during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021 at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette.

    Like Heyward, Horvath is a collegiate running back who projects as more of a fullback/move back in the NFL. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds he represents a potential size mismatch as both a runner and pass catcher. He had a career year as a junior in 2020, rushing for 5.0 yards per carry on 89 carries while catching 30 passes for 304 yards. Horvath is currently projected to go undrafted.

  • Chigoziem Okonkwo, Maryland

    Sep 4, 2021; College Park, Maryland, USA; Maryland Terrapins tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo (9) catches a pass and runs for a touchdown during the first quarter against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

    Sep 4, 2021; College Park, Maryland, USA; Maryland Terrapins tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo (9) catches a pass and runs for a touchdown during the first quarter against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium. Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

    Both players mentioned above are more running back than tight end on the fullback spectrum. That’s not the case for Okonkwo, who played tight end at Maryland. He may remain a traditional tight end at the NFL level, but his more compact frame (6-foot-2, 238 pounds) and athleticism make him an intriguing prospect as a move tight end in the right offense.

    Okonkwo ran a 4.52 40 at the Combine, the fastest by any tight end in this class. He’s a run after catch threat whenever he gets the ball in his hands, but has shown an ability to win jump-balls as well. While not polished as a blocker, he has the strength and frame needed to be functional in that regard in the NFL level.

    The Patriots met with Okonkwo at the Shrine Bowl. After a strong showing at the Combine, he’s expected to be an early Day 3 pick.

  • John Chenal, Wisconsin

    MADISON, WISCONSIN - NOVEMBER 20: John Chenal #44 of the Wisconsin Badgers is tackled by Myles Farmer #4 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the first half at Camp Randall Stadium on November 20, 2021 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

    MADISON, WISCONSIN – NOVEMBER 20: John Chenal #44 of the Wisconsin Badgers is tackled by Myles Farmer #4 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the first half at Camp Randall Stadium on November 20, 2021 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

    If the Patriots decide they do want to keep a traditional fullback on the roster, John Chenal would be one of if not the top option in this year’s class. If his name sounds familiar, that might be because his brother Leo Chenal – who also played at Wisconsin – is one of the top middle linebackers in this year’s draft class.

    At 6-foot-2, 256 pounds, Chenal is going to be able to compete with any linebacker he meets in the gap. He was used sparingly as a ball carrier by the Badgers, with 62 carries and 10 receptions in 25 career games. He’s currently a projected UDFA.

    Even though Johnson makes it seem like the Patriots are done with traditional fullbacks, that feels a bit extreme given the team’s history of roster building. They’re a game plan offense, meaning they like to be able to show different looks to different opponents. Having a traditional fullback available – even if its just a player who they can promote from the practice squad – would allow them to have more looks available offensively.