With or without Gronk, tight end depth is a must
Obviously, the Patriots want Rob Gronkowski back in 2019.
He’s not only one of the best players on the team – he’s one of the best players in NFL history, and arguably the greatest tight end ever. There’s no denying he’s lost a step – Gronk himself has admitted as much while flirting with retirement for the past year or so – but he’s still the best two-way tight end in the league today. There might be better receiving tight ends elsewhere (Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Zach Ertz come to mind), but none of them have the superb run-blocking and pass-protection abilities that Gronk also possesses.
Hopefully he’ll decide that he wants one more year with the team before calling it a career. Tom Brady’s decision to return in 2019 might help persuade Gronk into sticking around a bit longer; at least one prominent member of the media seems to think so.
With or without Gronkowski back in the fold next season, the Patriots owe it to themselves to start re-evaluating their depth at the position. When Dwayne Allen came over from Indianapolis, the hope was that he could build upon a promising career and play Robin to Gronkowski’s Batman. That hasn’t been the case thus far, and there’s little to suggest he’ll suddenly start catching touchdown passes left and right this fall, even with the added opportunities that would come along with Gronkowski retiring.
The better option for New England would be to address the position through free agency, the draft, or perhaps even a trade.
The 2019 free agent class of tight ends – like the tight end position in general this season – is a fairly middling group, with just a couple promising options at the top and not a whole lot else. Tyler Eifert from Cincinnati has the most upside and is still just 28 years old, but his injury rap sheet makes even Gronkowski look like a paragon of health. He’s too risky of an add for the Patriots.
The team would have better luck trying to pry Jared Cook over from Oakland. In 2018, Cook had nearly 900 yards and caught six touchdowns playing with Derek Carr on an atrocious Raiders football team. If there’s any chance he’s more interested in winning a championship than securing a big payday this offseason, New England should be his preferred destination.
Should the Pats decide to tackle the position in the draft instead, perhaps they’d consider one of two Iowa Hawkeye prospects. Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson both had quality seasons in the Big Ten last year – Fant had 39 catches for 519 yards and seven touchdowns, while Hockenson had 49 catches for 760 yards and six touchdowns. Not bad for both players, considering they essentially cannibalized each other’s production in 2018.
The feeling among some draft analysts is that Hockenson might be the more balanced player between the two, as he displayed better blocking ability than Fant to go along with comparable receiving skills. If Belichick and the Patriots are looking to groom someone as Gronkowski’s heir, it might make sense to see if Hockenson can be that guy – provided the team can afford him at his projected first or second round draft value.