As the March 17 start of NFL free agency draws closer, NESN.com is identifying potential New England Patriots targets at key positions of need. Up next: tight ends.
PATRIOTS TIGHT ENDS SIGNED FOR 2021
LEVEL OF NEED: High
Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers (6-foot-5, 250 pounds)
2020 stats: 60 catches, 613 yards, four touchdowns (14 games)
Henry, a longtime favorite of Bill Belichick’s, is the top tight end available in free agency, and as such, he might wind up being out of New England’s price range. Henry also has said one of his top priorities is to join a team with a good quarterback — a requirement the Patriots, as currently constructed, do not meet.
Jonnu Smith, Tennessee Titans (6-3, 248)
2020 stats: 41 catches, 448 yards, eight touchdowns (15 games)
Smith tailed off after a rocket start in 2020 (five touchdowns in his first four games) and never has reached 500 yards in his four-year career. He’s an excellent athlete, however, and one of the best in the NFL at creating yards after the catch, ranking fourth among tight ends in YAC per reception this past season, per Pro Football Focus. Belichick raved about Smith during the 2019 playoffs, calling him “a really good tight end” who’s “probably the best in the league” after the catch. Smith was PFF’s 12th-highest-graded tight end in 2020.
Gerald Everett, Los Angeles Rams (6-3, 240)
2020 stats: 41 catches, 417 yards, one touchdown (16 games)
The team that signs Everett will be banking on his production increasing as his role expands. He’s been the No. 2 option in LA behind Tyler Higbee and hasn’t played more than 57 percent of offensive snaps in any of his four pro seasons. Like Smith, he’s a talented athlete and a factor with the ball in his hands, ranking third in YAC/reception among qualified tight ends behind Noah Fant and George Kittle. Everett’s also durable, having missed just three total games since entering the NFL in 2017. He is smaller than most Patriots tight ends, though.
Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings (6-6, 265)
2020 stats: 28 catches, 334 yards, one touchdown (12 games)
Rudolph is past his prime, but the 31-year-old still could be a valuable veteran complement/mentor to 2020 third-round picks Asiasi and Keene. The Patriots considered trading for the longtime Vikings standout in 2019, and Rudolph is interested in signing with New England, a source told NESN’s Doug Kyed. Because he was released by the Vikings, Rudolph does not need to wait until the start of free agency to join a new team.
Jared Cook, New Orleans Saints (6-5, 245)
2020 stats: 37 catches, 504 yards, seven touchdowns
The Patriots pursued Cook in free agency two years ago, but with Rob Gronkowski’s status still murky at the time, he chose New Orleans instead. The well-traveled veteran (turns 34 in April) had a solid two-year run with the Saints, ranking 11th among tight ends in receiving yards (1,209), tied for second in touchdown catches (16) and first in yards per reception (15.1; minimum 30 targets) between 2019 and 2020.
Dan Arnold, Arizona Cardinals (6-6, 220)
2020 stats: 31 catches, 438 yards, one touchdown
Arnold enjoyed a breakout season for Arizona in 2020, surpassing his previous career totals in all three receiving categories. As a converted wide receiver, his height, reach and agility (6.81-second three-cone drill at his 2017 pro day) give him intriguing mismatch potential in the passing game. He also has just two drops on 74 career targets, per PFF. But the Patriots ask their tight ends to block, too, and the slender Arnold could have a hard time holding up in their offense.
Tyler Eifert, Jacksonville Jaguars (6-6, 255)
2020 stats: 36 catches, 349 yards, two touchdowns (15 games)
The injury-plagued former Cincinnati Bengal has largely stayed healthy over the last two seasons, but his Pro Bowl days are long behind him. His 9.7 yards-per-catch average in 2020 was the lowest of his career. But if the Patriots believe the 30-year-old has anything left, he wouldn’t cost much to bring in.
Robert Tonyan, Green Bay Packers (RFA) (6-5, 237)
2020 stats: 52 catches, 586 yards, 11 touchdowns (16 games)
Tonyan’s 11 touchdowns this past season tied Travis Kelce for the NFL lead among tight ends, and his 88.1 percent catch rate led all pass-catchers with at least 40 targets. The Patriots could use his sure hands and red-zone prowess, but as a restricted free agent, he’s unlikely to leave Green Bay. The Packers almost certainly will tag Tonyan with a first- or second-round tender, meaning any interested team would need to give up a corresponding draft pick in order to sign him.