Regardless of whether New England can extract it out of the current players on the roster, one thing is certain in 2021: The Patriots need more production out of their tight ends.
Patriots tight ends Ryan Izzo, Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene and Jordan Thomas managed just 18 catches for 254 yards with one touchdown during the 2020 season. And it bears mentioning that 50 of those yards — 19.7 percent of the overall production! — came on one reception by Izzo on a failed Hail Mary attempt from quarterback Cam Newton that landed 12 yards short of the end zone. There’s garbage time statistics, and then there’s that.
There’s a fairly strong case to be made that Asiasi and Keene — both 2020 third-round picks — will take significant leaps in their second seasons. If the Patriots want to gamble on that occurring, then perhaps they don’t need to add outside help at tight end. But if they want to take a less risky approach at the position, then they’ll have plenty of options to choose from via free agency and trade.
ESPN’s NFL Nation reporters picked a player on every team who needs a “fresh start” in 2021. Seven of the 32 reporters chose tight ends.
So, let’s go through those seven options to see if they would be a fit for New England.
Giants TE Evan Engram
2021 status: $6,013,000 salary
Engram, at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, looks more like a big receiver, but he spent 450 of his 838 offensive snaps in 2020 inline at tight end, per PFF.
The Ole Miss product, a 2017 first-round pick, was selected to the Pro Bowl as one of last season?s most productive tight ends. He caught 63 passes for 654 yards with a touchdown while also adding six carries for 26 yards with a touchdown.
Engram might pair well with Asiasi or Keene since he has the versatility to align out wide or in the slot.
Eagles TE Zach Ertz
2021 status: $8,250,000 salary
Ertz is another big-receiver type at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds. He only spent 43.9 percent of his snaps last season at tight end with 258 coming in the slot, 94 out wide and four in the backfield, per PFF.
The 30-year-old tight end is a buy-low candidate after the least productive season of his NFL career that saw him miss five games with a high ankle sprain. He caught just 36 passes for 335 yards with one touchdown and was outperformed by fellow Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert. Is Ertz washed, or was he just in a poor position in a struggling offense? Ertz caught 88 passes for 916 yards with six touchdowns in 2019, which suggests the latter.
Lions TE Jesse James
2021 status: $5,000,000 salary (signed through 2022)
James, at 6-foot-7, 261 pounds, is a much more traditional tight end. The 26-year-old Penn State product spent 427 of 465 offensive snaps inline and was used extensively on special teams last season in Detroit, which should have Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s heart fluttering.
James? production hasn?t matched his contract in Detroit. He caught 30 passes for 423 yards with two touchdowns in 2018, his final season with the Pittsburgh Steelers and managed just 30 catches for 271 yards with two touchdowns in two full seasons with the Lions while sharing snaps with T.J. Hockenson.
Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph
2021 status: $8,000,000 salary (signed through 2023)
Rudolph, 31, is another inline tight end at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds. He’s a steady presence, but his production doesn’t necessarily match his salary at this point in his career.
Rudolph has produced two straight seasons of less than 400 receiving yards. He had 28 catches for 334 yards with one touchdown in 2020.
Panthers TE Ian Thomas
2021 status: $2,183,000 salary
The only NFL team that received less production than the Patriots out of its tight ends was Carolina. Thomas, 24, led the way with 20 catches for 145 yards and one touchdown despite starting just eight games.
Thomas, who?s 6-foot-3, 260 pounds and played just 275-of-672 offensive snaps inline last season, has 72 career catches for 614 yards with four touchdowns. His best season came as a rookie when he caught 36 passes for 333 yards with two touchdowns.
The Panthers? 2020 offense was unique in some regards because so much of their yardage siphoned through wide receivers D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson and Curtis Samuel. The remainder of Teddy Bridgewater?s targets went to running backs Mike Davis and Christian McCaffrey, leaving limited attempts for the tight ends. Still, Thomas might not be the best fit for New England.
Saints TE Jared Cook
2021 status: free agent
The biggest drawback to Cook, 33, is his age. The Patriots were interested in him when he was a free agent in 2019. He caught 80 passes for 1,209 yards with 16 touchdowns in two seasons with the Saints. If the Patriots could get him cheap enough, he?d be a great bridge option until Asiasi and/or Keene are ready.
Cook did play more of a big receiver role with the Saints with 67.8 percent of his offensive snaps coming in the slot or out wide last season.
Rams TE Gerald Everett
2021 status: free agent
Everett, 26, is the same size as Engram at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds. Everett, however, played 463 707 offensive snaps inline last season, per PFF.
The free-agent-to-be has been a solid run blocker in his four-year NFL career. He caught 41 passes for 417 yards with a touchdown in 2020 and has 127 career catches for 1,389 yards with eight scores in 61 games.
Out of those seven options, Engram, James, Cook and Everett seem to have the best combination of value, production and versatility. The Patriots would have to trade for Engram. They could hope that Ertz, Rudolph or James are released because of their contract situations. Cook and Everett are free agents.
There are other appealing options hitting unrestricted free agency in the Los Angeles Chargers’ Hunter Henry, the Tennessee Titans’ Jonnu Smith and the Arizona Cardinals’ Dan Arnold. Green Bay Packers tight end Robert Tonyan also will be a restricted free agent. The Patriots likely would need to give up a second-round pick to acquire Tonyan via restricted free agency this offseason.