Fourth in a position-by-position series
When Rob Gronkowski slipped down the seam and snagged a memorable 29-yard pass from Tom Brady in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIII, it was the most significant play of the day, as it set up the only touchdown of New England’s 13-3 win.
It also marked the last significant and/or memorable catch made by a Patriots tight end, as the club has struggled to squeeze production out of the position the last two seasons.
In 2020, New England tight ends were targeted a mere 32 times and made 18 catches for 254 yards and one touchdown (which came in the season finale against the Jets).
Once a staple in Josh McDaniels’s passing attack, the tight ends were employed as blockers first and foremost over the last two seasons.
There is reason for optimism, however, as the Patriots have youth at the position and there are some talented veteran free agents who could come in and have an immediate impact.
New England invested a pair of third-round picks on the position last year, and though Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene had minimal impact, it’s unfair to judge anyone in the Class of 2020 because of the COVID-19 restrictions. There was no in-person rookie camp, minicamp, or organized team activities.
In addition, training camp was truncated, and snaps were at a premium, putting the young pups at a severe disadvantage during the dog days.
It’s also important to remember that other than quarterback, tight end is the most difficult position to master in the New England offense, given the multiple responsibilities required, including pass blocking, run blocking, and receiving.
Here’s a look at some of the non-draft options the Patriots could consider this offseason.
The 2020 Patriots
Ryan Izzo: He led the position group with 13 catches for 199 yards while doing yeoman work as a blocker before finishing the season on injured reserve. Has improved every season, and could take another step in Year 4.
Asiasi: His season was interrupted by injury and a personal loss — a close friend was shot and killed in his native California in late October. Showed flashes of his college form in camp but it didn’t translate on game day until Week 17 when he caught his first two passes, including a touchdown.
If Asiasi, who possesses nice athleticism and soft hands, can use that late-season momentum as a springboard to 2021, he could figure prominently in the offense for the foreseeable future.
Keene: Similar to Asiasi, injuries took a bite out of this rookie’s season. A strapping 6 feet 4 inches, 251 pounds, “Rambo” has the classic build of a fullback/H-back, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Patriots employ him in a number of roles moving forward.
A very tough and smart player, Keene has the potential to soar with a full season under his belt. He’ll be among the most watched players in camp this summer.
Matt LaCosse: Plays a similar style to Izzo. He is a hard-working and willing blocker who will chip in with the occasional catch to keep a defense honest.
The trade targets
Zach Ertz and David Njoku have one year left on their deals and could be available for different reasons.
Ertz: One of the absolute best at his position, he is on the Eagles’ books for a nearly $12.5 million cap hit. New coach Nick Sirianni may want to use that cash a different way, and that could benefit the Patriots.
Njoku: Hasn’t always been a happy camper in Cleveland — he asked out early last season — but was a productive player down the stretch and into the playoffs. The 2017 first-round pick has wonderful strength and athleticism and would be motivated to earn a new deal.
The free agents
Nearly every tight end in the NFL and college — maybe even some high school dudes — have been linked to the Patriots over the last two years — with many labeled “Baby Gronk” — so some of these names may be familiar: Hunter Henry, Robert Tonyan, Jonnu Smith, Jared Cook, Tyler Eifert.
Henry: One of the best all-around players at the position and a guy Bill Belichick talked glowingly about in the leadup to the Chargers game this season. He has a wide body and big arms and can lock on to defenders in the blocking game. Also has sneaky athleticism and soft hands.
Tonyan: He went from unknown to unstoppable this season, becoming one of Aaron Rodgers’s most trusted buddies in Green Bay — 52 catches, 586 yards, and 11 touchdowns. Would instantly become the second-most famous Indiana State Sycamore to perform in New England.
Smith: A very productive player with valuable red zone skills — throw it up, he’ll grab it — Smith collected 41 catches for 448 yards and 8 TDs with the Titans in 2020.
Cook: The Patriots were in on the bidding the last time Cook was on the market before he settled on New Orleans. A gifted receiver with good after-the-catch skills — don’t let last week’s fumble fool you — who has improved his blocking skills in recent years.
Eifert: A receiver-first tight end, Eifert has been mentioned as a Patriot target for years, from the draft, through trade scenarios, and finally free agency. Will he finally land in New England? Eifert is a smooth route runner with nifty hands. Buyer beware: He’s been injured a ton in his career.
The short-term solution
There’s another group of veteran free agents who could be brought in to help mentor Asiasi and Keene while also contributing in the passing game, including Greg Olsen, Jason Witten, and Marcedes Lewis.