Could This Former QB Be Patriots’ Long-Awaited Rob Gronkowski Replacement?

INDIANAPOLIS — In 2015, Adam Trautman arrived at the University of Dayton with a clear goal in mind.

Having just set school records for passing and all-purpose yards as a dual-threat quarterback at tiny Elk River (Mich.) High School, Trautman wanted to continue his quarterbacking career at the collegiate level. Rick Chamberlin, Dayton’s head coach, believed the 6-foot-3, 218-pound kid was better suited to play tight end, but he didn’t push the issue. If Trautman believed he could play QB in the Football Championship Subdivision — one step down from the highest tier of Division I — Chamberlin was willing to let him try.

That experiment was short-lived.

Just one week into his freshman training camp, Trautman approached the coaching staff with a request.

“Coach,” he told offensive coordinator Eric Evans, “I want to give tight end a shot.”

It wasn’t that Trautman suddenly lost the desire to play quarterback. He’d just realized he could help his team more by catching passes than by throwing them.

“High school-wise, I played with, like, 18 kids on my varsity team my junior year of high school, 22 my senior year,” Trautman said. “The team concept was a little rough, to be honest. And then when I got to Dayton, you play non-scholarship football. No one has any egos, and you truly play for each other. And that’s something that I thought was so special and I wanted to be a part of so fast. So I was the one that offered it up to our OC, and he kind of looked at me weird. It was only, like, seven days into camp, and I was like, ‘Hey, I just want to be a part of this, and I know I can bring a whole new dynamic to the tight end position.’

“I eventually made the switch, and it was the greatest decision I’ve ever made in my life.”

Indeed it was.

Five years and nearly 40 pounds later, Trautman now enters the 2020 NFL Draft as one of the nation’s top tight end prospects — one the New England Patriots, who have yet to find a viable replacement for retired superstar Rob Gronkowski, should strongly consider.

“Honestly, it’s not really something I necessarily expected — to get to this level,” Trautman, who measured in at 6-foot-5, 255 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, said Tuesday during prospect media availability. “But I know the work I put in, and I knew that it could get me to this point eventually.”

It’s rare for a school like Dayton, which hasn’t had a player selected in the NFL draft since before Tom Brady was born, to produce a prospect like Trautman. It took some time for him to grow into his new position — he was limited to scout-team duty in 2015, then caught a modest 26 passes in 11 games (seven starts) as a redshirt freshman in 2016 — but Chamberlin quickly learned he was dealing with a rare talent.

“He was a freshman on the scout team, and our (starting) defense couldn’t cover him,” Chamberlin told NESN.com this week.

Trautman upped his production over the next two years, leading the Flyers in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns as a sophomore (43-537-5) and junior (41-604-9) and earning consecutive second-team All-Pioneer League selections. NFL clubs began to take interest.

Then, as a senior, he exploded. Despite facing frequent double teams as his team’s unquestioned top weapon, Trautman racked up 70 catches for 916 yards and 14 touchdowns and used his filled-out frame and improved technique to bully overmatched defenders. By season’s end, all 32 teams had sent a scout to Dayton to watch him play or practice.

What they saw was a player who, despite having zero experience as a blocker or pass-catcher before college, had developed into a true two-way tight end. He boasts the versatility to line up in multiple spots (in-line, slot, out wide) and the physicality to move bodies in the run game, describing himself as a “big chess piece” in the mold of San Francisco 49ers star George Kittle.

“This kid, he’s going to just continue to get better and better,” NFL Media draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said on a conference call last week. “And the crazy thing is he’s really polished. He knows how to set up defenders. He can separate, he can wiggle. He wins a lot of 50-50 balls. … He’s somebody, I think for the Patriots, that would give you a little bit more separation and athleticism at the position. I could make a strong case for that.”

Despite his impressive profile, any small-school prospect carries with him the requisite concerns about quality of competition.

Dayton didn’t face a single Football Bowl Subdivision program during Trautman’s tenure. The two best performances of his phenomenal senior season — back-to-back torchings of Jacksonville (six catches, 107 yards, four touchdowns) and Valparaiso (10-122-3) last October — came against teams that posted 1-7 records in the Pioneer League. Conference champion San Diego held him to three catches for 35 yards, through one of those was a 25-yard touchdown.

Drafting a tight end from college football’s lower levels has yielded mixed results in recent years. The Philadelphia Eagles selected FCS product Dallas Goedert (South Dakota State) in the second round in 2018, and he’s turned into a solid No. 2 behind perennial Pro Bowler Zach Ertz. The Chicago Bears weren’t so fortunate. They used a second-round pick on Adam Shaheen out of Division II Ashland one year earlier, and he’s caught just 26 passes in three seasons.

Other recently drafted non-FBS tight ends include Eric Saubert (Drake, fifth round, 2017), Seth DeValve (Princeton, fourth round, 2016), Temarrick Hemingway (South Carolina State, sixth round, 2016), MyCole Pruitt (Southern Illinois, fifth round, 2015), Nick Boyle (Delaware, fifth round, 2015) and James O’Shaughnessy (Illinois State, fifth round, 2015).

Trautman, though, has a higher ceiling than all of those players. Jeremiah and Chamberlin both pointed to his performance at this year’s Senior Bowl as evidence he can hang with the big boys.

“He had a great Senior Bowl week,” Jeremiah said. “I thought he was outstanding there. I thought he was the best tight end down there, and it was a good group.”

Trautman excelled as a blocker and as a receiver during practice sessions in Mobile, then put Florida defensive end Jonathan Greenard on his back in the opening minutes of the Senior Bowl itself.

“He’s not going to give in to anybody,” Chamberlin said. “I don’t care how big they look or how many years that they’ve been in the NFL — he’s not going to back down. … I went down to the Senior Bowl, and I watched him for two days going against guys from Michigan and North Carolina and a couple of the other big FBS schools, and he held his own. He really did — blocking, especially. I thought he never got manhandled there.

“And I know the NFL — that’s where it all comes about. How can you stand up against individuals physically? And I thought he really showed that he had that quality. He can do that. And I feel like he’s even going to get better. He really is.”

Trautman agreed: The all-star showcase was a confidence-booster, even if he personally did not need one.

“The Senior Bowl was huge for me,” he said. “I’ve always wanted an opportunity to go against kids with the Alabama stickers on their helmet, the Ohio State, Michigan, and it was huge for me, obviously, confidence-wise. I never really waver in my confidence, but to go out there and be able to move people off the ball like I did from those type of schools, get separation like I did at my level — I just showed that it was a seamless transition for me. …

“The level of competition, sure, it’s a jump, but I had no problems with it at all. And I think everyone there would agree with that.”

Tight end is the most obvious offseason need for Patriots, who sent a large contingent of coaches to the Senior Bowl, and they appear to have taken an interest in Trautman. They’ve met with him multiple times during the pre-draft process, including once Monday night in Indianapolis.

Trautman said he appreciates New England’s “lunch-pail mentality” and “(looks) forward to future contact” with Bill Belichick’s staff.

“That’s definitely a type of franchise that I can see myself playing for,” he said.