Did Patriots Miss Golden Opportunity To Draft Franchise Tight End?

New England did sign an undrafted tight end


Apr 30, 2023

The Patriots don’t have any tight ends signed beyond this season, and this year’s class allegedly was the best and deepest in a long time. So, it seemed inevitable that New England would leave the 2023 NFL Draft with at least one new tight end, if not multiple.

But the joke was on us (and everyone, really), as the Patriots not only opted against drafting a tight end, but they also went all three days without taking an offensive tackle — although that’s a different story.

In the days and weeks leading up to the draft, the tight end class generated more buzz than perhaps any other group. “I think there’s gonna be double-digit tight ends in this class that end up being starters in the NFL, it is stacked,” NFL Media draft expert Daniel Jeremiah said in March.

Whether Jeremiah’s prediction proves true remains to be seen, but it’s clear that some teams were just as high on this year’s crop of tight ends. In total, 15 tight ends were drafted over the weekend, including six in the first two rounds — the most since 2013. New England had numerous chances to select a tight end, including in the early rounds, but each time they went in a different direction. In fact, the one time the Patriots traded up over the weekend, they did so to select kicker Chad Ryland in the fourth round.

So, what gives? How is it that the Patriots drafted 12 players — their most since 2010 — but not a single tight end, despite the plethora of talent available at the position?

Director of player personnel Matt Groh offered some insight Saturday night.

“Those guys went really fast and they just kept coming off,” Groh said during a Zoom call. “You know, so that was just the way the draft unfolded. There were some guys up top. There was some good depth in the middle of the draft and those players came off really, really fast. I don’t know all the history of the position in the drafts. But sometimes a guy goes … and then it’s like an avalanche and that position just kind of keeps falling and falling and falling.”

While we don’t want to put words in his mouth, Groh might’ve indicated the Patriots weren’t quite as sold as others on the overall depth of this year’s tight end group.

“So, you’ve got to still trust your board,” he said. “And you want to not just draft a guy to say, ‘Hey, we drafted a tight end.’ Well, if he’s not the right fit, if he’s not what you’re looking for, then you don’t want to waste a draft (pick) just to say, ‘OK, well, now we feel good we drafted a tight end.’

“We had a couple guys that we really liked. They just went, and that’s just kind of the way it’s going to go at any position in the draft. Just got to kind of take them as they come.”

Ultimately, New England should be fine at tight end next season. The Patriots have Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki (who really is a de facto receiver) on the roster, with Matt Sokol and Scotty Washington offering depth as potential practice squadders. New England on Saturday reportedly also signed an undrafted tight end who projects as a good blocker, something it needs more of with Henry and Gesicki largely filling pass-catcher roles.

The Patriots then could look to re-sign Henry and/or Gesicki next offseason, or dip into the free agency/trade markets.

But that might be a risky strategy.

Infamously, the Patriots failed to draft and develop a contingency plan for Rob Gronkowski as he neared the end of his career in New England. Gronkowski offered atypically low production in 2018 and retired after the season, only to return a year later to join Tom Brady in Tampa Bay. In 2019 and 2020, the Patriots received next to nothing from their tight ends, with the likes of Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo, Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene forming a black hole at the position.

New England then had no choice but to overpay for Henry and Jonnu Smith during free agency in 2021. Henry played well and provided surprising durability the last two seasons, but Smith was a total disappointment before getting traded in March.

The Patriots either didn’t learn their lesson or have something else up their sleeves and will look like the smart ones in the end. Belichick and his staff are more than capable of ensuring premature takes about New England’s roster age poorly.

But if history winds up repeating itself, the Patriots might look back on the 2023 draft as a huge missed opportunity.

Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images
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