Rob Gronkowski’s replacement in New England will not be a highly drafted rookie.
Two days into the 2019 NFL Draft, the Patriots have yet to select a tight end, which was viewed as one of their most pressing needs following Gronkowski’s retirement earlier this spring.
They still could add at the position Sunday in Rounds 4 through 7, but none of the players left on the board would be an upgrade over recent free agent signee Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
There’s a chance the Patriots could add a more viable Gronk replacement through other means, however.
Before the draft began Thursday night, Albert Breer of The MMQB reported the Minnesota Vikings could look to trade veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph — and that the Patriots would be likely suitors if they did.
“I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if New England inquired on (Rudolph) over the next 48 hours, if they don’t wind up taking a tight end high and the Vikings do,” Breer wrote. “The Patriots have done their homework on Rudolph in the past, and he’d bring a proven commodity with actual experience in a program like theirs (having played at Notre Dame under Charlie Weis a decade ago).”
That exact scenario played out Friday night, with the Vikings selecting Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. midway through the second round (50th overall) and the Patriots opting to devote their attention to other positions. Will Smith’s arrival make Rudolph, a Viking since he entered the NFL as a second-round pick in 2011, expendable?
The 29-year-old has given Minnesota generally consistent production over his eight pro seasons. In 2018, he posted his second-best reception and yardage totals (64 for 634) and caught four touchdown passes in an offense that featured two upper-echelon receivers in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
Rudolph, who is entering the final year of his contract and is set to earn $7.275 million in salary this season, isn’t in the Travis Kelce/George Kittle/Zach Ertz class of tight ends, but he’d provide a nice boost to a Patriots offense that’s in the process of adjusting to a post-Gronk reality. New England’s depth chart currently features Seferian-Jenkins, Matt LaCosse, Jacob Hollister, Stephen Anderson and Ryan Izzo.
Given this lack of proven talent — only Seferian-Jenkins has had a consistent place on NFL rosters, and he’s often injured — Smith was one of several tight end prospects viewed as potential Patriots targets entering the draft.
Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger, whom many considered the fourth-best tight end in this year’s class behind Smith and first-rounders T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, went 75th overall to the Green Bay Packers. Two picks later, the Patriots, who reportedly had hosted Sternberger for a pre-draft visit, chose Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich at No. 77.
Another near miss came later in the third round, with the Houston Texans selecting San Diego State’s Kahale Warring at No. 86 one spot before the Patriots were set to pick. New England wound up grabbing Alabama running back Damien Harris, with director of player personnel Nick Caserio essentially saying Harris’ value at that spot was just too good to pass up.
It’s unclear if the Patriots were angling for Sternberger, Warring or any of the other tight ends who came off the board Friday (Washington’s Drew Sample at No. 52, San Jose State’s Josh Oliver at No. 69 and Ole Miss’ Dawson Knox at No. 96). With their five selections thus far, they’ve selected a wide receiver (Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry), a cornerback (Vanderbilt’s Joejuan Williams), an edge rusher (Winovich), a running back (Harris) and an offensive tackle (West Virginia’s Yodny Cajuste).
New England enters Saturday with seven Day 3 selections — three in the fourth round and four in the seventh.
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