There have been plenty of reasons to talk about the New England Patriots’ tight ends, or lack thereof, as of late.
First, Rob Gronkowski’s potential return was dug up in the weekly Sunday morning news surge, although nothing has changed. Gronkowski has said he isn’t returning, but he hasn’t exactly been adamant about it this season. He has to make a decision to return or stay retired by Nov. 30. Patriots owner Robert Kraft reportedly told Gronkowski he wanted him back for November, December and the postseason while the tight end was cleaning out his locker this offseason. Gronkowski’s teammates have also said they’d like Gronkowski back. It seems unlikely Gronk will be back, but the Patriots do have the cap space to take him on. We’ll find out by Nov. 30.
Next, former Patriots tight end Jacob Hollister has become something of a weapon for the Seattle Seahawks. The Patriots traded Hollister to the Seahawks for a 2020 seventh-round pick in April. Hollister began the 2019 season on Seattle’s practice squad and has caught 17 passes for 137 yards with three touchdowns in five games since being promoted to the active roster.
Hollister always showed potential in his two seasons with the Patriots, but he couldn’t stay on the field in 2018 due to injuries. He’s also an undersized option at the position at 6-foot-4, 245 pounds. The Patriots have three more “complete” tight ends on their roster in Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo. Say what you will about Watson, LaCosse and Izzo, but it’s kind of pointless to compare Hollister to those players despite their identical job titles. Hollister wasn’t a blocker and essentially would be a big receiver in the Patriots’ offense. Would you rather see 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry or Hollister? That’s the question to ask, not Hollister or Watson, LaCosse or Izzo.
Finally, it was revealed Monday that the Patriots have the lowest tight end target rate in the NFL this season.
Here's how frequently each team is targeting each position. pic.twitter.com/1OSaWivIiH
— JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) November 11, 2019
This shouldn’t come as a massive surprise. Patriots tight ends have been targeted just 27 times this season.
Ben Watson: eight catches on 11 targets for 72 yards
Ryan Izzo: six catches on nine targets for 114 yards, TD
Matt LaCosse: three catches on six targets for 55 yards
Eric Tomlinson: one catch on one target for 1 yard
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady also completed a 5-yard pass to fullback Jakob Johnson on two targets. We’re nine games into the 2019 season, and Patriots tight ends are on pace for 34 catches on 52 targets for 494 yards with two touchdowns.
Gronkowski was a step slower last season and still had 47 catches on 72 targets for 682 yards with three touchdowns.
It’s certainly not the end of the world that the Patriots aren’t utilizing their tight ends heavily in the passing game. They’re still 8-1 and are second in the NFL with 30 points scored per game. They’re also 15th in the NFL in total offense, 11th in offensive DVOA and 13th in passing offense DVOA. The Patriots’ offense hasn’t been their biggest strength this season, but it would be incorrect to call it a weakness. It’s been above middle-of-the-road, and the Patriots are winning a bunch of games despite the fact that no one really needs to cover their tight ends.
Watson has also provided a sliver of hope at the position. He played every snap in Week 9 and caught four passes for 28 yards. Tom Brady has shown more of a willingness to target Watson than Izzo or LaCosse. The Patriots also could be getting back LaCosse soon, though the next question is how long he can stay on the field. He’s played just 139 snaps in four games this season while dealing with knee and ankle injuries. More than half of those snaps came in one game Week 6 against the Washington Redskins.
As Brady said Monday on the radio, there’s not much the Patriots can do about their tight end situation at this point.
“The trade deadline is gone,” Brady said on WEEI. “Training camp has passed. Free agency is gone. The draft is gone. I mean, our team is what it is and I am excited about who we have and the opportunity that we have.”
That is unless Gronkowski returns.
And if he doesn’t, the Patriots will continue to rely on targeting running backs and wide receivers in the passing game, and Harry is expected to make his NFL debut at some point, perhaps as early as Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Could the Patriots use Gronkowski? Absolutely? Was Hollister a big loss? No. Can the Patriots continue winning with Watson, Izzo and LaCosse? Yes, and ultimately, that’s all that matters.