With Rob Gronkowski committed to play, there’s no doubt who will start at tight end for the New England Patriots in 2018. Who backs up Gronkowski, however, is anyone’s guess at this point.
The Patriots’ tight end depth chart is Gronkowski on top, about 17 spaces and then everyone else in a big clump. In an attempt to throw together a post-draft 53-man roster projection, spinning a wheel would have been just as effective (and probably accurate) as actually trying to ascertain who would join Gronkowski on the Patriots’ roster in 2018.
It’s likely two of Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister, Will Tye, Troy Niklas, Ryan Izzo and Shane Wimann. We settled on Allen and Tye in our 53-man roster projection based on experience, but there are pros and cons to each candidate. Let’s go through them one-by-one.
Allen was Gronkowski’s backup and actually started eight games in 2017. He was solid as a rock as a blocker, but he caught just 10 passes on 22 targets for 86 yards with one touchdown in 16 regular-season games. He wasn’t targeted in three playoff games.
He also dropped four passes. And he’s on the books for $5 million in 2018, and the Patriots would be left with no cap hit if he’s cut.
Allen caught 126 passes for 1,451 yards with 19 touchdowns in five seasons with the Colts, so he can catch. But after seeing how he was used in 2017, it’s unreasonable to expect him to suddenly turn into his Indianapolis self in New England.
Is a solid blocker with limited receiving upside worth $5 million? Depends on who he’s competing with.
The Patriots liked Hollister’s upside enough to keep him on the roster all year and play him in 15 games. He caught just four passes for 42 yards but contributed heavily on special teams, playing 41.7 percent of snaps.
At 6-foot-4, 239 pounds, Hollister has limited upside as a blocker, but he’s a great athlete. Still, he only caught four passes as an undrafted rookie, so he would have to make strides offensively this offseason.
Tye was a two-year starter with the New York Giants, with whom he caught 90 passes for 897 yards with four touchdowns. He was cut three games into his tenure with the New York Jets last season — after being cut by the Giants. He then spent most of the 2017 season on the Patriots’ practice squad.
We like Tye’s athleticism, starting experience and receiving ability, but he doesn’t have Hollister’s special teams value or Allen’s blocking skills.
Niklas might still have untapped potential as a 2014 second-round pick but he didn’t do much from a pass-catching perspective with the Arizona Cardinals. He caught 19 passes for 203 yards with three touchdowns. He’s a Gronk-sized presence at 6-foot-6, 270 pounds, so he still has upside as a blocker.
The Patriots spent their final pick in the 2018 NFL Draft on Izzo, whose greatest value at Florida State was as a blocker. He did catch 54 passes for 761 yards with six touchdowns during his four-year college career, so it’s not as if he has no receiving upside.
He is limited athletically, however. He ran just a 4.86-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-5, 256 pounds.
Wimann, an undrafted free agent, is also limited athletically. He ran a 4.95-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-3, 251 pounds but brings versatility to also play fullback. He caught 65 passes for 635 yards with 17 touchdowns at North Illinois.
Conclusion: So, who’s it going to be?
Backing up Gronkowski is an important role, because he’s missed at least one game every season since 2011. He also waffled on whether he wanted to play in 2018, so it’s reasonable to expect him to do something similar next offseason. So, some degree of upside would be nice.
Allen is the safest bet, but he’s also the most expensive. Niklas, at $940,000, is the next-highest-paid potential backup on the roster. Then it’s Will Tye at $740,000. So, the Patriots could save over $4 million in cap room, which they could carry over to 2019, by electing to go with a younger backup tight end than Allen.
If two of Hollister, Tye, Niklas, Izzo and Wimann could present a reasonable facsimile of Allen, then he could be gone. It’s a tough choice, but we’d go with Tye for his receiving skills and Izzo for his overall upside. Paying Allen $5 million is a lot of money for what he contributed in 2018.