Young Patriots' tight ends competing for the future

A wrestler turned into a guard. A quarterback turned into a receiver. A linebacker turned into a fullback. The New England Patriots have a history of converting run of the mill players with great athletic traits into solid NFL players. The latest project could be Scotty Washington.
Jul 26, 2023; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Matt Sokol (87) makes his way to the practice field.
Jul 26, 2023; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Matt Sokol (87) makes his way to the practice field. / Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

Washington was a 6-5 225-pound receiver at Wake Forest. He had a decent career with the Demon Deacons and finished with a 15.2 yards per reception average. But he went undrafted and signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2022.

Washington was signed to the Patriots’ practice squad last season, continuing his position change. He already gained 20 pounds, and is now trying to make a good impression.

He is one of three rookie/first year tight ends trying to catch the attention of the Patriots coaching staff. Washington, Johnny Lumpkin and Matt Sokol understand it’s unlikely they can play a major role for the team in 2023, but there’s a real opportunity for a roster spot next year.

Tight end depth is a growing problem for the New England Patriots

To the surprise of many, the Patriots didn’t draft at tight end in April’s NFL Draft, despite the position being considered a top need for New England. They even passed repeatedly on Georgia’s Darnell Washington, a monster truck in cleats.

The massive, 6-7 265-pounder is starting to pop with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a blocker and receiver. These reports raise the question why the Patriots didn’t like Washington enough to select him, even though he seemingly checked all the boxes for what head coach Bill Belichick typically looks for at the position.

At least the Patriots have a Washington at tight end, but he is more project than player right now. He was fairly productive for Wake Forest, but wouldn’t make it as a receiver in the NFL.

So he’s taking the Mikhael Ricks route. Washington could be a viable target on passing downs now, but probably has to work on improving his blocking.

On the other end is Lumpkin, a 6-6 268-pounder from Louisiana Tech. He had just 36 receptions in four years for the Ragin’ Cajuns, so he may have more to offer as a receiver with more opportunities. But Lumpkin has the natural size to be an effective blocker.

Lastly is Matt Sokol, here in New England after a year with the Los Angeles Chargers. He has a Big Ten pedigree after four years at Michigan State, making Sokol the most game ready of the trio and should have the inside track to the third tight end roster spot.

The opportunities for Washington, Lumpkin and Sokol are lean this year, but the tight end competition could be wide open in 2024. Anthony Firkser, Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki are free agents after the season. If none of them are extended, only Lumpkin is under contract beyond 2024.

If the Patriots go into 2024 with just Lumpkin under contract, the tight end position they ignored this past April becomes urgent. One too early mock draft already projects the Patriots to select at tight end in the first round. It’s very possible, but the need for an offensive tackle or two may be more important.

It’s still early in camp so a lot can change between now and roster cuts. But it’s not about now for Washington, Lumpkin and Sokol. Making the practice squad sets the stage for when the tight end competition could become really interesting a year from now.