New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels summed up his team’s lack of talent at tight end with one telling quote.
“[Patriots tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan] also do some different things in the passing game where, if people don’t cover them, we’ve thrown them the ball plenty this year,” McDaniels said.
So, yeah, the Patriots’ tight ends were fine at catching the ball after Rob Gronkowski went down with a season-ending ACL tear. You know, as long as no one decided to cover them.
In 32 combined games this season (including the playoffs), Mulligan and Hoomanawanui had 18 receptions for 197 yards and two touchdowns. The Patriots went from a two-tight end offense in 2012, with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, to essentially a no-tight end offense in 2013. And pundits wondered why quarterback Tom Brady struggled without Gronkowski.
Even if Gronkowski was a guarantee to get healthy and play 16 games next season, the Patriots still would need to add another weapon at tight end. Given Gronkowski’s lack of health or any dependability, the Patriots should be picking up every tight end they can afford. They should draft one or two players and sign one or two more in free agency.
Five tight ends in this year’s draft would make a lot of sense for the Patriots. Let’s take a look at them:
Eric Ebron, North Carolina
At 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, Ebron is more of a flex tight end than inline. He’d fit into the Hernandez role quite well. Ebron did do some blocking at North Carolina, but given his lack of bulk, he got pushed around a lot.
Ebron lined up split out, in the slot and inline during his junior year, and he showed some impressive ability after the catch. He had 62 catches for 973 yards and three touchdowns in his final season with the Tar Heels.
Ebron might not still be around when the Patriots are picking at No. 29, however. With a good combine, Ebron potentially could be a Top 10 pick.
Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
Amaro has better size than Ebron, but his blocking still needs work. In Texas Tech’s spread offense, Amaro typically played in the slot and wasn’t asked to get down in the trenches very often.
Amaro likely won’t time out as well as Ebron at the combine, but at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, he’ll be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. Amaro could be available when the Patriots are picking in the first round. He had 106 catches for 1,352 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington
Seferian-Jenkins is the best blocker of the top three tight ends and has the best size at 6-foot-6, 276 pounds. When he came out of Gig Harbor (Wash.) High School, there was talk of converting him to an offensive lineman, given his size, strength and blocking ability.
The Washington product doesn’t have the speed of Ebron or Amaro, nor did he have the production. After catching 69 passes for 852 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore, Seferian-Jenkins had 36 receptions for 450 yards and eight touchdowns as a sophomore. He got off to a slow start after being suspended for drunken driving.
Seferian-Jenkins is a big red zone threat, which the Patriots desperately needed in 2013. There is some concern about his upside, though, without elite athleticism.
Troy Niklas, Notre Dame
Niklas has great size at 6-foot-6, 270 pounds, but he doesn’t appear to be an advanced blocker. He had 32 catches for 498 yards and five touchdowns in his junior season at Notre Dame. It came as a surprise that Niklas entered the NFL draft.
Niklas spent most of his time at Notre Dame playing inline. He doesn’t have tremendous speed, but once he has the ball in his hands, he’s tough to bring down. He has experience as a pass protector and looked more comfortable blocking for his quarterback than getting physical in the run game.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick has a good relationship with Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, so Belichick will know exactly what he’s getting out of the big tight end.
C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
Fiedorowicz is definitely the best run blocker out of this group and has some deceptive quicks in the passing game. His route-running ability is impressive for his size (6-foot-6, 262 pounds). Fiedoriwicz didn’t get the same opportunities as a receiver compared to the rest of these tight ends — he had 30 catches for 299 yards and six touchdowns in his senior year — but Iowa passed for just 2,582 yards this season.
If Fiedorowicz is the Patriots’ type of player, they will take him. His coach at Iowa, Kirk Ferentz, was Belichick’s offensive line coach with the Browns. Ferentz’ son, Brian, was the Patriots’ tight ends coach in 2011. The younger Ferentz served as Iowa’s offensive line coach in 2012 and 2013.
Fiedorowicz isn’t the elite talent that Gronkowski was coming out of Arizona, but he has a complete skill set. If Gronkowski goes down again, the Patriots will need a tight end who can get open and help out in the run game. Fiedorowicz spent some time in the slot but looked most comfortable running routes from a three-point stance.
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