This year’s tight end class seems like just another instance of everything working out to benefit the Patriots.
The position is one of the team’s biggest needs heading toward the 2019 season and, wouldn’t you know, it’s also one of the deepest in the upcoming draft. Not only that, the two best tight ends available both come from a program, Iowa, that Bill Belichick respects highly and gets great information from because of his close friendship with Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz. If you follow the Patriots and the draft even loosely, you’ve probably heard the names T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant floated around because it just seems to make a lot of sense.
But could the Patriots really be in play for either player at No. 32, where they currently sit in the first round of the draft? Could they make a big enough swing to land either player and, if they were able to, would they consider either player worth it? A look at the landscape of the draft says yes to the former, but just maybe to the latter.
“I think these guys would be first-round picks, day-one starters and big-time impact guys,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said via conference call before the Combine.
Hockenson is generally considered the better of the two because he’s a more complete player. He won the Mackey award as the top tight end in college football in 2018 as a redshirt sophomore and was one of the most surprising declarations for the 2019 draft. Hockenson, 6 feet 5 inches, 250 pounds, had 49 catches for 760 yards and six touchdowns in 2018 and was a major asset in the run game as a blocker.
The thing is, the Patriots aren’t going to have a shot at him.
“I think he’s the safest player in the draft,” Jeremiah said. “And part of the benefit for him in terms of what I gave him and where I ranked him, I did him the day after watching Rob Gronkowski live in person in the playoff game against the Chargers, and I saw Gronk completely dominate a football game without really having to catch the ball. He was just so dominant in the run game.
“And then I flip on this kid, and he’s not as tall as Gronk, and I don’t compare anybody to Gronk, he’s on a whole different level in terms of what he can do, but I saw this kid with that same temperament and nastiness in the run game and controlling the run game, and then on top of that, he does nothing but get open and catch everything they throw to him.”
Neat. But for Patriots fans, that might as well translate to: “If you want to root for him, draft him on your fantasy team.” The best opportunity for New England to trade up would be with the Seahawks, who have the No. 21 pick in round one. Seattle doesn’t have a second-rounder, has just four picks overall and is willing to deal No. 21 and move down in the first round to pick up an extra selection.
Fant is a different case, though. He met with the Patriots on Feb. 28 at the Combine and took a top-30 visit to New England on Thursday. It makes sense the Patriots are doing plenty of work on him because they have a more realistic shot at Fant than at Hockenson because he comes with more questions.
Fant is an elite athlete with great speed — at 6-4 and 250 pounds he ran a 4.5 40-yard dash at the combine, best among tight ends — and is a great route runner.
He had 39 receptions for 519 yards and a team-leading seven touchdowns this season. In 2017, he led college tight ends nationwide with a 16.5 yards per catch average and also had 11 touchdown receptions, an Iowa tight end record. There’s a lot to like and though a scout described him as a “willing” blocker, he’s not as good in the run game as Hockenson, who was the choice in the Hawkeyes offense for their 21 personnel looks with two running backs and a single tight end.
“He’s functional in the run game,” Jeremiah said. “He’s OK. You can get by with him there no problem. He’s not deficient, but he’s not the killer that Hockenson is. That would be the difference there.”
“I came in at 220 and now I’m at 250, so it’s been a good transition,” Fant said at the Combine, describing how he’s gained strength to be a better blocker. “I’ve put all lean muscle mass on. I think my body fat percent is like 12 percent.
“It’s not fat; it’s all good muscle. It’s been a pleasure to do that.”
Fant is seen as a bit moody. He was unhappy with his playing time at points during the 2018 season and chose to skip Iowa’s bowl game. (He also told reporters at the combine that Travis Kelce is the tight end he models himself after, which means different things to different people.) Fant also had drop issues, with 13 drops on 91 catchable passes during his Iowa career, according to Pro Football Focus.
“He’s jumping for balls that are on his body,” Jeremiah said of Fant. “Sometimes that shows you a guy doesn’t have total confidence there in his hands.”
One scout who’d evaluated Fant said that the drops are more about focus than any lack of natural ability. With Fant’s combination of physical traits being rare, he’s the type of player who needs to go to the right team and, if he does, can excel.
In any case, Belichick won’t have trouble getting an honest evaluation of Fant from his former coaches. While Iowa isn’t generally a favorite stop along the scouting trail because the program can be a bit rigid and stingy with information about players, the Patriots are well-connected there and have a good history with Iowa players. Fant is exactly the type of prospect where that comes in handy: high upside, but if you’re going to spend a high pick on him you want to be confident that he’ll buy into your program. The meeting and visit helps, too.
There are, of course, plenty of other tight ends in the draft and spilling a thousand-plus words of ink on two of them all but guarantees Belichick will take some kind of lineman in the first, trade down and not draft a tight end until day three. Such perfect fits rarely work out.
That’s probably the case with Hockenson, who’s going to come off the board too early for the Patriots to have a chance to draft. But if the stars do align need, talent and a player from a Patriot-friendly program, Fant might be the player they come together for.
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Patriots safety Patrick Chung agreed to a one-year extension through the 2021 season, according to multiple media reports. Chung, 31, appeared in 15 games in 2018, finishing with 84 tackles and an interception. He has played nine of his 10 NFL seasons with the Patriots.
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The Panthers signed unrestricted free agent wide receiver Chris Hogan from the Patriots to a one-year contract. Terms of the deal were not released.
Hogan, 30, spent the last three seasons with the Patriots, winning two Super Bowls playing alongside Tom Brady.
He played in 16 regular-season games in 2018, catching 35 passes for 532 yards with three touchdowns. He also had eight receptions for 58 yards in three postseason games.
Prior to his time with New England, Hogan played three seasons for Buffalo (2013-15) where he had 87 receptions for 959 yards and six touchdowns.
Hogan has started 33 games during his NFL career. He gives Carolina another deep threat after losing free agent Devin Funchess, a former starter, to the Colts.