Before the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off later this month in Indianapolis, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2019, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town.

First up: the tight ends.

UNDER CONTRACT (2019 STATS)
Matt LaCosse (13 catches, 131 yards, one touchdown)
Ryan Izzo (6-114-1)

IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
Ben Watson (17-173-0)

TOP PERFORMER
Watson, but that’s almost by default. Playing through a partially torn Achilles, the 39-year-old led all Patriots tight ends in both catches and receiving yards despite not making his season debut until Week 7 and had one of his best games in New England’s wild-card round loss to the Tennessee Titans. He’s likely to retire this offseason and almost certainly will not be back with the Patriots in 2020.

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT
This position group was a black hole in New England’s offense this season. LaCosse, who signed on Day 1 of free agency last spring, and Izzo, who was viewed as a promising prospect after spending his entire rookie season on injured reserve, both struggled as blockers and pass-catchers for a Patriots team that never adequately replaced the retired Rob Gronkowski.

LaCosse missed five games due to injury and caught more than two passes in just one of his 12 appearances, including the postseason. Izzo never made it back into the lineup after a three-game concussion-related absence, spending the entire second half of the season in healthy scratch land. His 44.9 run-blocking grade on Pro Football Focus was the second-lowest among all NFL tight ends.

For a team that typically relies heavily on its tight ends in the run and pass game, this lack of production severely hamstrung the Patriots’ offensive potential. No one expected them to immediately find the next Gronk, but failing to even come close to approximating his production was a major roster-building blunder.

Watson, LaCosse and Izzo combined for fewer catches, receiving yards and touchdowns that even a clearly diminished Gronkowski had by himself in 2018. Bolstering this position needs to be one of New England’s top offseason priorities, and neither LaCosse nor Izzo should be viewed as a roster lock for 2020.

TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. Who’s available in free agency? Atlanta’s Austin Hooper, the Chargers’ Hunter Henry and Indianapolis’ Eric Ebron are the top three names set to hit the open market when the new league year opens March 18, followed by Cincinnati’s Tyler Eifert, who’s coming off the first 16-game season of his injury-plagued NFL career. Elder statesmen Greg Olsen (35), Jason Witten (38) and Darren Fells (34) all put up decent numbers in 2019 and could be short-term options. The Patriots also could look to pluck someone like Nick Vannett, Seth DeValve or Blake Bell from the bargain bin. They must add at least one true impact tight end this offseason, however, either in free agency, via trade (O.J. Howard, perhaps?) or through the draft. Which brings us to…

2. Who’s available in the draft? The combine will paint a clearer picture of which tight ends would fit in New England, but a few potential targets have emerged during the early days of the pre-draft process. Among them: Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet, LSU’s Thaddeus Moss, Vanderbilt’s Jared Pinkney and Dayton’s Adam Trautman. The Patriots’ decision not to select a tight end from last year’s loaded class after Gronkowski’s retirement was one of the big surprises of the 2019 NFL Draft. Even if they do land a top free agent like Hooper or Henry this spring, drafting a young tight end with upside would be a smart move.

3. Will Gronkowski be back? Many Patriots fans surely have grown tired of Gronk’s will-he-or-won’t-he act over the last 11 months, but until the future Hall of Famer definitively states that he’s permanently retired, a return to action remains possible. We’d call that a remote possibility at this point — Gronkowski, who just hosted a massive Super Bowl beach party in Miami, seems to be loving post-NFL life — but we could envision a scenario in which Bill Belichick and/or soon-to-be free agent Tom Brady attempt to lure the 30-year-old back for one more go-round. Gronkowski said during Super Bowl week he’s only lost about 10 or 15 pounds off his playing weight of 265.

“If I ever come back and I feel I have that passion,” he said, “that strong passion for a continued time — not just one day or one hour, like, ‘Oh, man. I need to play football again’; I’m talking like a continued passion for about a good week or a good month or so — then I would think about truly returning to football.”

Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images