(An occasional series looking at the key positional battles expected at Patriots training camp.)
When Rob Gronkowski answered the lingering question about his future plans with a heartfelt Instagram retirement post in March, it spawned another big question.
“Who’s taking the big guy’s place?”
The query remains largely unanswered, but it’s not for a lack of effort by the Patriots, who have brought in a number of candidates who will use the summer to stake a claim on one of the vacant tight end spots.
New England lost not only Gronkowski, but also Dwayne Allen, as the bulldozing blocker signed with the Dolphins, and Jacob Hollister, who was traded to the Seahawks.
Ben Watson is a shoo-in to pick up some of the slack, as the 38-year-old veteran decided to un-retire and sign with the team that drafted him in the first round in 2004. He has been very durable and productive over the latter stages of his career, playing in 16 games in each of his last four seasons with 190 catches for 1,883 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Watson’s arrival comes with a caveat, however, as he will be suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Watson knew the ban was a possibility and was up front about it when negotiating with the Patriots.
While it’s never ideal to miss time, Watson’s suspension could have several silver linings. He will be spared a month’s worth of wear and tear and should be rested and ready to bolster the offense in Week 5. (Not making any predictions here, but Tom Brady and Julian Edelman won Super Bowl MVPs after serving season-opening four-game suspensions.)
Watson’s absence also should give the Patriots an extended look at other candidates, as the veteran will not count against the original 53-man roster while he sits out.
The Patriots also signed Matt LaCosse, who was given a lot of run with the first team during minicamp. LaCosse has excellent size (6 feet 6 inches, 255 pounds) and soft hands. He’s had limited productivity (27 catches, 272 yards for his career) but showed flashes and promise last season with 24 grabs.
LaCosse isn’t a true power blocker but is willing, and he has good footwork and can get out in the flat and obstruct tacklers.
Stephen Anderson (6-3, 230) has excellent athleticism, good hands, and a solid knowledge of this offense. Anderson could be used as a move tight end because he has the speed and slipperiness to slide down the seam and do damage. He is a tad undersized in the blocking game.
Ryan Izzo (6-5, 255) spent last season on injured reserve but was able to participate in team meetings and film sessions during his rehab. Now he has the chance to take a giant step in his second season in the program.
Izzo is a wide body and possesses enough athleticism and size to set up defenders and shield them from the ball. If he can improve his quickness off the snap and get stronger as a blocker, he could be one of the summer surprises.
Andrew Beck was signed as an undrafted rookie out of Texas. A pretty athletic guy, Beck was hampered by injuries in college — including breaking the same foot three times.
The 6-3, 255-pound Beck, a converted linebacker, is smart and was a two-time captain for the Longhorns. He could quickly challenge as the best blocker in this group.
New England will continue to monitor the market throughout camp and particularly on cutdown weekend, when quality players become available because of number crunches in other cities.
The Patriots could get away with carrying just a pair of tight ends until Watson returns because they don’t use a ton of traditional three-tight-end sets, and when they do, they usually employ an extra tackle to serve as a jumbo tight end (think Cam Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle recently) in heavy packages.
Previous postional battles covered:
■ Wide receivers: Jobs will be up for grabs during Patriots training camp
Jim McBride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.