Jacob Hollister had a breakout season in 2019 and now enters free agency — and the New England Patriots desperately need help at tight end.
While the strength of their defense looks like it will remain largely intact from the terrific unit that paced the NFL in 2019, questions abound at almost every other level of the organization. The largest and most pressing obviously swirl around the game’s most important position — quarterback — and whether or not Tom Brady plans to return to the only team he’s ever known this spring.
But tight end arguably represents the next most significant concern for New England this offseason. There are question marks along the offensive line, at wide receiver, and within the coaching ranks, but tight end is the most critical area that needs to be addressed after quarterback.
The trio of Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse, and Ryan Izzo wildly underperformed against expectations last season. No one expected the second coming of Rob Gronkowski from any of them — but the team did expect at least some consistent level of contribution from at least one or two of them at minimum.
Spoiler: it didn’t happen. Beset by injuries and ineffectiveness, tight end was essentially an afterthought it an offense that was already stuck in neutral all season long thanks to turnover at receiver and along the O-line.
So what will the Patriots do to solve this problem? Or perhaps the more accurate phrasing of that question: what can the Patriots do to solve this problem?
New England doesn’t have a ton of cap space to work with this spring. They’re in a major holding pattern with Brady and the potential ratification of the new CBA. If Brady re-signs with the team before free agency gets underway (unlikely), then this point is moot. Similarly, if the NFL players approve the new CBA that the owners already voted to pass, perhaps the Patriots get more clarity on their cap situation entering the new season.
Most likely though, the Patriots are going to have to find a way to either a.) pay Tom Brady as much or more than what he gets offered elsewhere, or b.) pay another veteran quarterback to replace him, while simultaneously incurring the remainder of Brady’s dead money cap hit from his old contract.
That’s a tough situation either way, and it doesn’t leave a whole lot of money left over to pay players who could become that “better supporting cast” Brady is rumored to be looking for in 2020.
Julian Edelman should be back, Mohamed Sanu technically is coming back (if that’s even a good thing), and youngsters like N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers could conceivably make a second-year leap. The offensive line should get a healthy David Andrews and Isaiah Wynn back to fortify it, and running back should be an area of depth and relative strength for the team in 2020.
What about tight end though? The Patriots could seek to sign one of several high-end tight ends on the free agent market — such as Hunter Henry, Austin Hooper, Eric Ebron, Tyler Eifert, or Jordan Reed — but all of those players carry significant injury concerns with them.
Perhaps the best option for New England is to turn to a player they actually once had on their own roster.
The Patriots signed Jacob Hollister as an undrafted free agent back in 2017. Hollister played sparingly in 2017 and 2018, as he was well behind Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen on New England’s TE depth chart. He also dealt with a number of injuries in 2018 that ultimately landed him on injured reserve.
Last April, the Patriots traded Hollister to the Seattle Seahawks for a seventh-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
At the time, it made a lot of sense for both sides. The Seahawks needed depth at the TE position and the Patriots did not (Watson, LaCosse, Izzo, and other guys who didn’t work out like Lance Kendricks, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, etc. were still on the horizon).
Of course, New England couldn’t have known just how much they’d end up needing a tight end in their offense that would contribute in 2019.
Similarly, Seattle had no idea they’d see their starters at the position go down during the season, they’d be forced to turn to Hollister… and most importantly, that Hollister would deliver (and then some).
The 26-year-old reeled in 41 catches on 59 targets across 11 games with Russell Wilson under center. He made the most of those opportunities, turning the catches into 349 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
It’s not a crazy-impressive stat-line, but considering he’d never been more than a backup in his NFL career before that point, it got the job done.
Now Hollister is a free agent. He still doesn’t have enough production on his resume to warrant big-time money on the open market, but he may have shown just enough to perhaps elicit some serious interest from the first team that took a chance on him three years ago.
Would Bill Belichick consider bringing him back? It seems like the answer should be yes.
After all, Belichick saw enough of him during his pre-draft visit and in game footage from his college playing days at Wyoming to give Hollister a three-year, $1.6 million contract once upon a time. That’s not big money in the world of the NFL, but it’s significant for an undrafted free agent rookie — particularly a tight end.
If the Patriots strike out with some of the more established names listed above — or if they simply find themselves in a position where they can’t afford any of them or they’re too concerned about the injury risks — they should think long and hard about reuniting with Hollister. Especially considering his familiarization with Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and Tom Brady (if Brady’s back), it might make a lot of sense to sign him to a one-year prove it deal laden with incentives.