Ben Watson’s delayed start to the 2019 NFL campaign will hurt the Patriots in the short term but could come with a late-season silver lining for both the 16-year veteran and the team.
The tight end is facing a four-game ban for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. According to Watson, the Patriots knew about the suspension before offering him a contract.
Watson will be able to participate in all offseason workouts, training camp, and exhibition games before he is penalized. It’s the same scenario Julian Edelman faced last season.
Tight end is among the biggest question marks for the Patriots, who will be without their main crew from last season with Rob Gronkowski retired, Dwayne Allen in Miami via free agency, and Jacob Hollister in Seattle via trade.
Watson’s suspension comes with some advantages, however, as his roster spot will be exempt, giving the Patriots extra time to evaluate other players at tight end or any other position.
Additionally, having the 38-year-old Watson start his season in Week 5 could help him stay fresher longer. New England’s last two Super Bowl MVPs (Tom Brady and Edelman) both missed the first four games of that season.
The Patriots will benefit from Watson’s leadership skills throughout the spring and the dog days, and the team’s young tight end candidates would do well to watch and learn from him on the field.
Here’s a look at how the tight end spot looks now, and some of the guys who could benefit from Watson’s banishment.
■ Austin Seferian-Jenkins: He has the desired size (6 feet 5 inches, 262 pounds) and athleticism to be a dual threat as a blocker and receiver.
Seferian-Jenkins had his best season with the Jets two years ago (50 catches, 357 yards) but hernia problems cut short his season after five games last year.
The six-year veteran has never had the luxury of playing with an elite quarterback; now he gets the chance. Seferian-Jenkins could flourish working with Brady in an offense that will consistently make use of the tight end. He has the speed to be effective down the seam, plus a large catch radius and decent hands. Brady’s accuracy will help bring out the best in those skills.
Seferian-Jenkins also moves well laterally, and his quick sidestep allows him to chip-block larger defenders and his power makes him effective in walling off the smaller guys.
■ Matt LaCosse: An undrafted free agent in 2015, he bounced around the Giants organization for a couple years before hooking on with the Broncos.
A big lad (6-6, 255 pounds) with good agility, LaCosse is another player who hasn’t had the opportunity to build a solid rapport with a QB. He had 24 catches on 37 targets last year and showed he can make the difficult catch. He’s a willing in-line blocker but can get overwhelmed by speed rushers.
LaCosse likely will get some run with the first-stringers beginning at next week’s mandatory minicamp.
■ Stephen Anderson: He spent the majority of 2018 on the practice squad before the Patriots promoted him for the playoff run, though he never made a game-day roster.
Anderson has a year of the offense under his belt, having attended all practices (and starring on the scout team), meetings, and film sessions. He’s had a deeper dive into this playbook than any of his competitors.
Anderson (6-3, 230 pounds) has a receiving background but his lack of size (comparatively speaking) prevents him from being a dominant in-line blocker.
■ Ryan Izzo: A seventh-round draft pick in 2018, he spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve. Izzo has good size (6-5, 255 pounds) and decent athleticism. He has reliable hands but needs to flash some speed to more consistently get separation. He’s a willing blocker, but a lack of first-step quickness hinders his effectiveness in this area.
■ Andrew Beck: The undrafted free agent was never a focal point of the Texas offense (39 career catches) but he does have good hands. He’ll need to make the most of reps throughout the spring and summer to show he can be a reliable target.
Beck (6-3, 255 pounds) shows good toughness and leg drive as a run blocker, and that’s clearly his biggest strength.
■ Other food for thought: The situation will remain fluid throughout the summer, and quality players always become available at the final cutdowns . . . Trades are always a possibility, and the Kyle Rudolph rumors bear watching, because he’s expensive and the Vikings drafted Irv Smith Jr. . . . There are some quality free agents out there, including Lance Kendricks, Jermaine Gresham, and old friend Michael Hoomanawanui . . . Antonio Gates, 38, also is unsigned. Would he come across the country for a shot a ring?