Rob Gronkowski hung up his cleats, forearm sheath and No. 87 jersey when he retired Sunday, meaning the New England Patriots’ need for a tight end grew exponentially. Get ready to see an increase in tight ends mocked to New England before the 2019 NFL Draft.
There are two consensus first-round tight ends in this year’s draft, and both come from a college program, Iowa, with which Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is quite familiar.
The two tight ends, T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, played for Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz, Belichick’s old offensive line coach from his time with the Cleveland Browns. Brian Ferentz, who was a Patriots coach from 2009 to 2011, is Iowa’s offensive coordinator.
Hockenson is the more complete player at 6-foot-4, 251 pounds. Pro Football Focus gave Hockenson one of their highest run-blocking grades among 2019 draft-eligible tight ends. He also caught 49 passes for 744 yards with six touchdowns last season and dropped just one pass.
Fant, at 6-foot-4, 249 pounds, is a better athlete but lesser blocker. Fant’s 4.5-second 40-yard dash, 6.81-second three-cone, 39.5-inch vertical leap and 10-foot, 7-inch broad jump marks would have ranked well among wide receivers. He caught 39 passes for 519 yards with seven touchdowns in 2018.
Hockenson is no slouch as an athlete, and Fant is a well above average blocker. There’s a reason both players are projected first-round picks. The Patriots would be lucky to have either player, but they’re selecting 32nd overall. We took Hockenson and Fant’s average draft position from 13 mock drafts, and Hockenson’s mean draft position is 13th, while Fant’s is 21st. The Patriots almost certainly would have to move up to take either player.
Hockenson was drafted before Fant in 10 of those 13 mocks, but either player could go off the board first. It largely depends on what teams want in their tight ends.
The Patriots have twice drafted first-round tight ends since 2000 (Daniel Graham, Ben Watson) and have plenty of draft capital with six picks in the first three rounds. So, what would they need to give up to move up?
To move to 13th overall, the Patriots would have to package a first- (32nd), second- (56th) and a third-round pick (73rd). That sounds like a lot. It is. But the Patriots would then still have the 13th, 64th, 97th and 101st overall picks in the first three rounds of the draft.
To move up to 21st overall, the Patriots would have to package the 32nd and 73rd overall picks. They also could package the 56th, 64th and 73rd overall picks. The Seattle Seahawks own the 21st overall pick. Given their seeming hatred for first-round selections, Seattle might actually take such a deal.
Neither trade would be bad for the Patriots. The question is if it’s high enough. Hockenson has widely been mocked to the Detriot Lions at eighth overall, while Fant was mocked as high as seventh overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars. All it takes is one team to believe in either player.
If the Patriots miss out on Hockenson and Fant, there are other appealing options. Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. is another player from a program with which Belichick is familiar. At 6-foot-2, 242 pounds, Smith is a good receiver and decent athlete but only an average blocker. He could be had at 32nd overall.
Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger is another good receiver and average blocker at 6-foot-4, 251 pounds. He’s a second- or third-rounder.
Among projected late-round picks, Texas State’s Keenen Brown is an intriguing option at 6-foot-2, 250 pounds. He’s another complete player, per PFF’s grades. Kentucky’s C.J. Conrad is another potential seventh-round complete tight end, per PFF’s grading.
For more grades, advanced statistics and more at Pro Football Focus, go to ProFootballFocus.com.