Patriots’ tight end position as crowded and competitive as ever

DENVER, COLORADO - DECEMBER 15: Matt LaCosse #83 of the Denver Broncos carries the ball against the Cleveland Browns at Broncos Stadium at Mile High on December 15, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
DENVER, COLORADO - DECEMBER 15: Matt LaCosse #83 of the Denver Broncos carries the ball against the Cleveland Browns at Broncos Stadium at Mile High on December 15, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images) /

The New England Patriots have plenty of quantity at tight end in training camp so far; now the hope is that they find some quality as well.

Say what you will about the Patriots this offseason – they certainly haven’t been idle in addressing the tight end vacancy left behind by Rob Gronkowski’s retirement.

Of course, “vacancy” is almost a euphemism for what Gronk left behind. Better words to describe it would be “sinkhole,” “chasm,” or “smoking hole left behind after a giant meteor’s impact.” Something like that.

Surprisingly electing not to draft a tight end last April, New England head coach Bill Belichick has instead decided to roll the dice with a number of players of varying skill-sets and experience. Presumably, the hope is that one of these players rises to the occasion and seizes the golden opportunity before him to start at tight end in a Super Bowl-winning offense with Tom Brady at the helm.

The only question now is who’s it going to be?

Benjamin Watson has the most experience, both in the Patriots’ system and in the NFL overall. A 15-year veteran who briefly contemplated retirement last spring, he was in New England for six years before bouncing around other franchises.

While Watson seems like the most logical candidate to step right in to a starting role – he had one with the New Orleans Saints just last year – he is unfortunately suspended for the first quarter of the season due to a failed drug test.

Ex-Bronco Matt LaCosse now reportedly has the inside track to being the Week 1 starter barring injury. LaCosse played a major part of the Denver offense last season, appearing in 15 games… but he had just 24 catches on 37 targets for 250 yards and a single touchdown. Evidently the sample size, though small, was substantial enough to peak Belichick’s interest though, and now it might be LaCosse’s job to lose (at least for four weeks).

In addition to Watson and LaCosse, the recently-signed free agent Lance Kendricks also has plenty of years of experience in the NFL. Kendricks, like Watson with Drew Brees, also comes fresh off the heels of playing in a potent offense with a great quarterback (Aaron Rodgers). It’s a little disconcerting that Kendricks himself reported there wasn’t much interest in him from teams outside of the Patriots, but hopefully once again, Belichick knows something the rest of us don’t.

While Watson, Kendricks, and – to a lesser extent – LaCosse represent the more tested, proven commodities at tight end, the depth chart is also flush with rookies, second-year players, and developmental projects. Between them, Stephen Anderson, Ryan Izzo, and Andrew Beck have a combined four years experience in the NFL.

In a recent radio interview, even Belichick himself seemed to acknowledge just how open-ended and undecided the Patriots’ plans at tight end are currently. Here’s what he had to say, courtesy of NESN’s Zack Cox:

"“Well, I think it’s a very competitive position,” Belichick told hosts Pat Kirwan and Jim Miller. “We have a couple of young players, and we have some experienced players. Obviously, Ben Watson — we go all the way back with Ben. But Ben’s a quality person. He has a lot of experience… We just brought in Lance Kendricks, signed Matt LaCosse in the offseason… Ryan Izzo. Stephen Anderson’s more of a receiving tight end, but he has some experience in the league. So it’s a very competitive position. The players have some different skills, but they all catch the ball well. They’re all smart and can do multiple things, which is important to us offensively because of our formationing and so forth. So we’ll see how that shakes out here as we go through camp and preseason.”"

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Hopefully the competition at tight end brings out the best in all six players, and the Patriots soon discover they have a bounty of riches at the position entering the new season. It’s the only way that the gaping, massive, Gronk-sized hole left behind on their roster might be somewhat more tolerable, after all.