An air of uncertainty likely will linger over the New England Patriots’ tight end depth chart until the team collectively returns to Gillette Stadium on April 16 for the offseason workout program.
That’s because Rob Gronkowski still hasn’t confirmed if he’s playing in 2018. The latest reports are positive: Both ESPN’s Jeff Darlington and NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport reported Gronkowski is likely to play this season. Rapoport said Monday that Gronkowski likely won’t make an announcement about his status. So, if he shows up in two weeks, then he’ll probably be playing.
But will it be in a Patriots uniform? There also are reports that Gronkowski could be traded. It seems unlikely, because that would have a trickle-down effect on New England’s most important player, quarterback Tom Brady, but when Bill Belichick’s running the show, anything can happen.
The Patriots haven’t done anything to address the tight end position this offseason, however. They’ve shown interest in tight end prospects, but if anything, they’ve actually dwindled their depth by cutting Martellus Bennett. New England has kept its options open with Dwayne Allen, who carries a $5 million cap hit in 2018. The Patriots were expected to cut Allen, who caught just 10 passes for 86 yards with a touchdown in 2017, because of his price tag. They haven’t done that yet.
Behind Allen on New England’s tight end depth chart is Jacob Hollister. Hollister is an undersized tight end who came into the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Wyoming in 2017. He caught four passes for 42 yards and is a developmental prospect with good athleticism.
Perhaps the most interesting player behind Gronkowski on the depth chart is one Wilhelm Tye. (Or Will Tye for short. Wilhelm just sounds cooler.) Tye spent most of the 2017 season on the Patriots’ practice squad, but he was a two-year starter with the New York Giants.
Tye, like Hollister, came into the NFL as an undrafted free agent. He was signed by the Giants out of Stony Brook and caught 42 passes for 464 yards with three touchdowns as a rookie. He caught 48 passes for 395 yards with one touchdown in 2016 but was cut out of training camp in 2017. He briefly caught on with the New York Jets, with whom he caught four passes for 38 yards, before being released and scooped up onto New England’s scout team.
It’s entirely possible Tye doesn’t make it through training camp with the Patriots. There’s obviously a reason he wasn’t on an active roster last season. But it’s rare for a player with Tye’s experience to spend a year on a practice squad. And he’ll have a better shot of cracking the Pats’ 2018 roster than he did of being promoted in 2017 because of the full offseason in New England under his belt.
The Patriots undoubtedly will add other tight ends this offseason. They easily could draft one, and they reportedly brought free agent Troy Niklas in for a visit Monday. They could even sign one or two more undrafted free agents.
But Tye has starting experience, and because of his athleticism — he ran a 4.57-second 40-yard dash in 2015 — he probably has more upside than Allen as a pass-catcher at this point in their respective careers.
Tye might be a long shot to make an impact in 2018, but he’s another player to watch as the Patriots get ramped up for next season with organized team activities, minicamp and training camp.