INDIANAPOLIS — Whether or not Rob Gronkowski ultimately decides to retire, it’s time for the New England Patriots to reload at the tight end position.
And while replacing a talent like Gronkowski — who is, at the very least, in the twilight of his Hall of Fame-caliber career — is borderline impossible, the 2019 NFL Draft class is flush with tight end talent.
At the top of that list are Iowa products T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, who have a very real chance of becoming the first tight end teammates selected in the first round of the same draft.
Hockenson, who caught 49 passes for 760 yards and six touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore in 2018 and has been lauded for his blocking ability, is considered the most complete tight end in this year’s class. Fant isn’t as developed as a blocker, but he’s the more athletic of the two, and he was a dangerous red-zone target for the Hawkeyes, catching 18 touchdown passes over his final two collegiate seasons.
Both have experience playing in line as a traditional Y tight end and splitting out as a receiver, which Patriots tight ends frequently do.
“They have Gronk there; they have a couple of different tight ends come through that program that they?ve developed and they?ve made into great players,” Fant said Friday. “So it would mean the world to me to go to a team like that or any team that?s willing to use their tight ends like they do.”
Fant said he patterned his game after All-Pro Travis Kelce. Hockenson has closely studied Gronkowski, but he’s drawn comparisons to the Kansas City Chiefs star, as well.
“Rob’s a great player,” Hockenson said. “He’s beyond. He’s been in the league for so long and he can do it so well. At the beginning of this last season, I watched a few people, and he was one of them. The way that he finishes the catch (and) he uses his body to get in position is really special, and that’s something that I try to emulate in my game.
“(I’m) nowhere near him, obviously, but taking little tidbits from different players, that’s something that I think anyone tries to do, and that’s something that I’ve tried to do.”
The duo’s Iowa pedigree also increases the likelihood of one of them landing in New England. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz are longtime friends and former colleagues from Belichick’s days with the Cleveland Browns, and Brian Ferentz, the Hawkeyes’ offensive coordinator, previously coached Patriots tight ends.
A total of five Iowa products — Adrian Clayborn, Cole Croston, Matt Tobin, Riley McCarron and James Ferentz — spent time on the Patriots’ 53-man roster this past season.
Hockenson, who teared up when asked about the impact Kirk and Brian Ferentz have had on his life, said the Iowa program seeks to emulate New England’s “Patriot Way” culture.
“We all look up to the Patriots,” Hockenson said. “Obviously, they’re at the highest level, and they do what they do at the highest level. … There’s obviously a lot of good things that come out of the Patriots.”
Hockenson and Fant both had meetings with the Patriots during combine week. New England currently owns the final pick of the first round (No. 32) and might need to trade up to draft either, as some mock drafts have Hockenson going as high as No. 8.
The Patriots also sat down with several other top-level tight end prospects, including Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr., whom many consider this year’s third-best option. Smith, the son of a former NFL tight end, said he’d be excited to play in New England.
“As a tight end, a younger tight end, you see guys like Gronk making plays and having fun out there,” Smith said. “It would be awesome to have that opportunity.”