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Ben Volin | On Football

With Rob Gronkowski retired, tight end position wide open for Patriots

Matt LaCosse, one of five tight ends at Patriots’ minicamp, caught 24 passes for the Broncos last season.
Matt LaCosse, one of five tight ends at Patriots’ minicamp, caught 24 passes for the Broncos last season.(barry chin/Globe staff)

FOXBOROUGH – The Patriots’ addition of free agent tight end Matt LaCosse in March was not the major impact signing fans were looking for.

LaCosse, a former three-year practice squad journeyman signed a modest deal: Two years and a maximum of $3.8 million, with only part of the first season guaranteed. It’s what teams normally pay their second or third tight end. LaCosse’s breakout year for the Broncos in 2018 entailed 24 catches for 250 yards and a touchdown — which is to say, LaCosse probably isn’t going to be Rob Gronkowski.

And yet of the five tight ends on the Patriots’ roster right now, LaCosse is probably the only one you can count on to be on the Patriots’ Week 1 roster.

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“Obviously, it’s a good opportunity,” he said Wednesday. “But again, nothing’s been earned yet.”

LaCosse has a big chance in front of him, but it also underscores the reality of the post-Gronkowski Patriots. The Patriots won’t be replacing Gronk, and may not be featuring the tight end position in the offense.

All three tight ends from last year’s roster are gone – Gronkowski retired in late March, Dwayne Allen was released, and Jacob Hollister was traded in May.

The Patriots didn’t sign Jared Cook in free agency. They haven’t traded for Kyle Rudolph, and they didn’t take a tight end in the draft.

Instead, they are piecing it together with promising young faces and one familiar one.

LaCosse, listed at 6 feet 6 inches and 255 pounds, is running with the starters this week, but he’s not the first tight end into the huddle. That would be 16-year veteran Ben Watson, who signed in early May and should be the No. 1 tight end this fall.

But Watson will be suspended for the first four games for PEDs, which he announced last week on Facebook.

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“I tried to be as transparent and honest as I could about the situation,” he said. “Obviously I have great disappointment about not being able to play. But I do feel good about what I said. I feel good about just being honest about it and telling people what happened.”

And the depth chart after Watson and LaCosse is wide open. Ryan Izzo, noted for his blocking, was a seventh-round pick last year who spent the entire season on injured reserve. Andrew Beck is an undrafted rookie out of Texas. Austin Seferian-Jenkins signed in April and was released on Tuesday.

The only tight end who was even with the Patriots last year is Stephen Anderson, an undersized (6-3, 230) player who was on the practice squad for all of 2018.

“Coach asks me to tell the guys about last year and how the operation went, but this is my first OTA here, so I’m still young in the room, too,” Anderson said. “Ben’s the veteran in the room, there’s no doubt about that. He’s actually older than the coach. I kind of know what’s going on, but I still have a lot to learn.”

Bill Belichick didn’t have much to say about his new tight end unit on Wednesday.

“There’s a lot of guys out there. I can’t evaluate them all,” Belichick said. “Everybody’s taking reps, everybody’s getting an opportunity. We’ll see how it all works out when we get the pads on.”

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Watson, who spent the first six years of his career in New England (2004-09), said he’s busy re-learning all of the new terminology with the Patriots’ offense.

“When you look at an offense over the course of a decade, of course it’s going to change,” he said. “Some concepts are universal no matter where you go. It’s just a matter of what terminology that specific team uses.”

LaCosse doesn’t have much NFL production, but the Patriots are hoping he’s a late-bloomer. Undrafted out of Illinois in 2015, LaCosse bounced between the Giants’ and Jets’ practice squads for three years, finally got a chance with Denver late in 2017, and earned his first real playing time last year, playing 38 percent of the Broncos’ offensive snaps.

“I feel like I can do it all. Pretty good utility guy,” said LaCosse, 26. “Wherever you need me, wherever you want me, I’ll do my job.”

The Patriots, though, sure look like they could use another tight end. It’s why the Gronkowski return rumors will never die. As he said last weekend when asked to put the rumors to rest, “Whatever I say, it doesn’t matter.”

Sure enough, Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman wrote Wednesday that his Patriots sources believe Gronkowski will want to come back this fall, and that “it’s not just a hunch . . . you can count on it.”

A Gronkowski return certainly makes sense, though I have questions about him keeping his body in football shape. If Gronk does remain retired, the Vikings’ Kyle Rudolph would be a great addition via trade, though the Patriots would have to do some salary cap maneuvering to get there. For a value name, the Texans recently released veteran tight end Ryan Griffin, a New Hampshire native whose skill set would fit the Patriots’ offense.

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But a Patriots team that revolutionized the two tight-end offense a decade ago now has turned the position into a supporting role.

“It’s a lot of new guys, but it doesn’t feel that way,” LaCosse said. “It’s a bunch of guys trying to learn at the same pace, and a lot of extremely smart, talented individuals. It’s going to be a fun competition, and it’s a great group of guys to work with.”


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin