One of the most important needs for the New England Patriots going into the 2014 draft was at the tight end position and it’s one positional need the team did not address in the draft or in free agency. Rob Gronkowski is an all-world tight end and when healthy he makes the Patriots offense tick. But his injury history is well documented and it’s entirely unclear whether Gronk can stay on the field for sixteen games and help his team make a run at another AFC East championship. That’s why many analysts believed the tight end position should have been one of the team’s top priorities going into the draft, but Bill Belichick and the Patriots personnel department had more important priorities and must not have seen the caliber of talent on the board necessary to use one of the team’s draft picks on a young tight end.
So where does that leave the Patriots at the tight end postion now? While the team didn’t draft or sign a veteran tight end in free agency, it did bring in two undrafted free agents, conceivably to compete in training camp. Let’s take a more in depth look at the tight ends currently on the Patriots roster and their likelihood of making the opening day roster.
|Asa Watson||6-3||237||23||R||N.C. State|
|Justin Jones||6-8||277||22||R||East Carolina|
The Patriots currently have five tight ends on their 90 man roster. Two of those tight ends are basically guaranteed to make the roster in Rob Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui. Hoomanawanui, who signed a two year, $2.4 million contract extension this offseason, believes he can play a more active role in the Patriots offense as a pass catcher. It remains to be seen, however, if the Patriots actually see Hoomanawanui as an offensive playmaker or in the more traditional blocking role that he’s occupied most recently in the Patriots offense. The likelihood is if they did see him as an offensive playmaker, that would have been apparent last year in Gronkowski’s absence. It’s most likely that we’ll see Hoomanawanui on the field contributing more on running downs in 2014 than as a consistent pass catcher.
So with two 53 man roster spots likely locked up at tight end, where does that leave the rest of the tight ends on the Patriots 90 man roster? It’s unlikely the Patriots will carry more than three tight ends out of training camp so what that means is that there will be fierce competition between the other three tight ends on the roster: 2013 holdover D.J. Williams and undrafted rookie free agents Asa Watson and Justin Jones. Of course, there is also the likelihood that the Patriots bring in a veteran tight end before the start of training camp to provide some more competition. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the possibility of the Patriots signing either Jermichael Finley or Dustin Keller . Both veteran free agents have serious injury concerns, however, and as of now the Patriots haven’t signed either player. But the fact that the team has brought both players in for visits recently shows a recognition of weakness at this position.
But if the Patriots decide to stick with the players currently on the roster, the likelihood is that the competition will come down to the two undrafted free agent rookie tight ends. Both of these undrafted rookies are compelling for different reasons, so let’s take a more in depth look at each young tight end.
What makes Patriots fans most excited about Asa Watson is not what he did in his college career, but what his brother did in a Patriots uniform. Asa is the younger brother of former Patriots tight end Ben Watson. The Patriots must hope that some of that the pedigree can drive Watson to a strong camp. There’s not much of a college career to base an evaluation of Watson on, however, given his struggles with Wolff-Parkins-White Syndrome. His speed could make him an option in the passing game and the Patriots are likely hoping that he might be able to fill a more versatile, mobile tight-end role in the offense. If Watson can overcome his health issues and make the Patriots roster it would be quite an accomplishment and it’s certainly a story to watch going into training camp.
Justin Jones out of East Carolina is an absolute physical freak. At 6-8, 277 Jones is the biggest tight end on the roster, which is saying something on a team with Rob Gronkowski. With that kind of size, it’s obvious that Jones could become a coverage nightmare for opposing defenses if he can learn the Patriots offense and become a consistent NFL route runner. Those are big questions, however, for someone who was ruled academically ineligible for his senior year. Jones is probably not the speedy tight end that Patriots fans hope the team can find to replace Aaron Hernandez, but it’s probably time that fans and beat writers realize that Hernandez was a unique talent and can’t be replaced.
What the Patriots need to do is find a tight end that can contribute to the offense in that player’s own way. Whether that player comes through free agency or whether one of these young rookies can emerge remains to be seen. But what’s certain is that if another tight end is going to emerge in this offense, it will have to be on the basis of that player’s strengths, not on a hope that the player can fill a void left by someone else.