Tight end was the New England Patriots’ weakest position group in 2019. Nearly a week into the new league year, it remains so.
The Patriots have brought aboard seven free agents thus far — one receiver, one defensive tackle, one fullback, two safeties, one linebacker and one quarterback — but have yet to address their deficiencies at tight end. That unit was the least productive in the NFL in Year 1 of the post-Rob Gronkowski era, and its most productive member (Ben Watson) now is retired.
The only New England tight ends currently under contract for the upcoming season are Matt LaCosse (13 catches, 131 yards, one touchdown, five games missed due to injury) and Ryan Izzo (6-114-1, seven healthy scratches). That’s a perilously weak depth chart, even if the Patriots begin deemphasizing the position following quarterback Tom Brady’s departure.
Of course, they still have plenty of time to improve it, but the pool of available veterans is quickly dwindling. Six days after the official start of free agency, the only players left on the market either have major injury concerns or haven’t put up starting-caliber numbers in several years, if ever.
The top three remaining free agents — Tyler Eifert, Delanie Walker and Jordan Reed — all fall under that first umbrella.
Eifert just played a full 16-game schedule for the first time in his seven-year career, surpassing his appearance total from the previous three seasons combined (14 games).
Walker was a Pro Bowl selection in 2015, 2016 and 2017, but ankle injuries limited him to eight games over the last two seasons. He also turns 36 in August.
Reed has suffered seven documented concussions, including one that sidelined him for the entire 2019 campaign.
With NFL teams currently unable to conduct physicals amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it could be a while before any of these players sign. (Potential trade target Evan Engram is another tight end with injury concerns.)
The level of quality drops off sharply after that top trio. Former Buffalo Bill and Miami Dolphin Charles Clay is the next-most-accomplished free agent (five straight 500-yard seasons from 2013 to 2017), but he’s been a non-factor in recent years, failing to crack 25 catches or 250 receiving yards in 2018 or 2019 despite playing at least 13 games in both. Clay also has just one touchdown over the last two seasons.
Ricky Seals-Jones, who just turned 25, could have some upside after being non-tendered by the Cleveland Browns. He only caught 14 passes last season, but five of them went for 20-plus yards and four were touchdowns.
Further down the list are career backups like Geoff Swaim, Blake Bell, David Morgan, Clive Walford, Luke Stocker, Scott Simonson and Ben Koyack. Lance Kendricks and Eric Tomlinson, both of whom had cups of coffee with the Patriots in 2019, also are available.
So, how about the draft? This year’s class isn’t believed to be as deep or as talented as the 2019 crop headlined by T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, but it does feature some promising prospects, including Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet, Dayton’s Adam Trautman, Florida Atlantic’s Harrison Bryant, Washington’s Hunter Bryant and Missouri’s Albert Okwuegbunam.
The Patriots met with several of the top tight ends at the NFL Scouting Combine and should prioritize drafting one this year — something they haven’t done before the fifth round since they nabbed Gronkowski (second round) and Aaron Hernandez (fourth) in 2010. Another double-dip wouldn’t hurt, either.