FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — After a 2019 season in which the New England Patriots finished last in the NFL in receptions and targets to tight ends, according to research by ESPN’s Stats & Information, what has the club done to address the position this offseason?
[Insert sound of crickets].
There has been no movement, other than subtraction (the retirement of veteran Benjamin Watson).
In one sense, it is understandable. The free-agent market was thin, especially once the Los Angeles Chargers placed the franchise tag on Hunter Henry. The Cleveland Browns moved fast to lock up Austin Hooper, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons, but at a hefty price tag (four years, $44 million, with $23 million guaranteed) that was likely out of the Patriots’ consideration.
Likewise, veteran Jimmy Graham’s two-year, $16 million deal with the Chicago Bears, which included $9 million guaranteed, was viewed by Football Outsiders as overspending. And it’s hard to imagine Graham being a fit in New England, regardless.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ two-year, $12 million deal with Eric Ebron was more reasonable, yet the Patriots’ lack of interest spoke volumes of how they didn’t view Ebron as a fit.
Clearly, the supply didn’t meet the demand for the Patriots, who return 2019 free-agent signing Matt LaCosse and 2018 seventh-round draft choice Ryan Izzo on the depth chart. Improvement from LaCosse and Izzo would be part of upgrading the position, and perhaps working with second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham — a player on a similar development track/knowledge base in the system — helps spark that progress.
But the Patriots still need help, whether it’s via trade, the draft or waiver wire. That’s why, when assessing the team’s needs, it starts at tight end — even more than quarterback, with one caveat: Only if the Patriots felt like a franchise QB option was available would they pounce (and that seems unlikely with their first pick at No. 23 and a trade up having longer odds).
The following is one view of the Patriots’ top needs, paired with a realistic, early-round prospect from ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay’s new tiers piece:
1. Tight end
With 12 draft picks, the Patriots have some capital to trade that might interest teams with an excess at the position. One suggestion: See if the Chicago Bears might be willing to move disappointing 2017 second-round pick Adam Shaheen for a late-rounder.
This year’s draft isn’t considered deep at the position, but then again, analysts were saying something similar in 2013 when Tyler Eifert was viewed by many as the only first-round-caliber option. But how many teams would now covet a player such as Zach Ertz (second round) or Travis Kelce (third round)?
McShay’s match: Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet (No. 42 overall draft prospect). At 6-foot-5¾ and 262 pounds, Kmet has huge mitts (10#&189; inches) and enters the draft after his junior season (43 catches, 515 yards, 6 TDs). He fits the mold of the combination tight end that is highly valued in New England — equally as effective as a blocker and pass-catcher.
2. Off-the-line linebacker
Losing Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts in free agency has thinned the depth chart, leaving captain Dont’a Hightower, 2018 fifth-round pick Ja’Whaun Bentley and practice-squad player Terez Hall as the top options. Safety Adrian Phillips is also a projected factor at this spot in certain sub packages.
Ideal characteristics: Speed, take-on ability in the run game and a presence on special teams.
Veteran Nigel Bradham is one of the top available free agents, and if the Patriots wanted to take a flier on a highly touted prospect who hasn’t panned out, 2016 Jets first-round pick Darron Lee could be worth a look.
McShay’s match: Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray (No. 27 overall prospect). If the Patriots are going to select a linebacker early, the key is that he can play all four downs. The 6-foot-2, 241-pound Murray fits that mold, and might be the closest thing to Collins in terms of playmaking ability in this year’s draft.
3. Offensive line
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Top interior backup Ted Karras signed with the Dolphins in free agency, and starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is in the latter stages of his career with a high salary-cap charge, so any position up front could be targeted to help solidify the ranks. Offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste, the 2019 third-round pick from West Virginia who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, is a wild card who could be viewed as a “new” draft pick himself.
Former Patriots, Titans and Vikings center/guard Josh Kline (30) is a free-agent who could fit, assuming he was amenable to a projected role as a top backup.
McShay’s match: Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz (No. 36 overall prospect). With center/guard flexibility, the 6-foot-2#&190; and 307-pound Ruiz would represent a safer choice in an altered offseason in which scouting has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. He would initially project as a top backup at all three interior spots. If any of the top offensive tackles slide — a group headlined by Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, Alabama’s Jedrick Wills, and Georgia’s Andrew Thomas — the Patriots should pounce.
4. Wide receiver
A Damiere Byrd-for-Phillip Dorsett swap in free agency could ultimately be an upgrade when considering the speedy Byrd as a factor as a return man. But even more speed and playmaking ability is needed to pair with Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Mohamed Sanu and Byrd atop the depth chart.
The draft is widely viewed as deep at the position, making that the more likely avenue for the Patriots to pursue than free agency. A duplicate to what the Chiefs added last year with Mecole Hardman would be ideal.
McShay’s match: Penn State’s K.J. Hamler (No. 75 overall prospect). With Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III projected to be off the board early, Hamler is one of receivers the next in line in terms of speed and explosiveness. He was a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award as college football’s most versatile player, as he projects as a factor in the return game, as well.
5. Defensive end/outside linebacker
Kyle Van Noy was one of the Patriots’ top defenders, and now that he signed with the Dolphins as a free agent, it opens a spot for 2019 third-round pick Chase Winovich to possibly emerge opposite John Simon. Derek Rivers, the 2017 third-round pick who has spent two of his three seasons on injured reserve, is in the mix alongside Keionta Davis, Shilique Calhoun and practice-squad player Tashawn Bower.
If the Patriots are looking to build more depth, former Giants and Bengals edge player Kerry Wynn might be of interest. The club had explored him as a fit in its scheme when Wynn was a restricted free agent two years ago. Old friend Jabaal Sheard is on the market, while Clay Matthews would fall more into the Chris Long situational-pass-rusher category.
McShay’s match: Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa (No. 26 overall prospect). The scheme versatility of the 6-foot-5, 275-pound Epenesa could be appealing, as he potentially fits as a 4-3 end or as a 3-4 end.
The often-overlooked position figures to be a target for the Patriots this year, similar to 2006, when they selected Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth round to replace Adam Vinatieri. Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship, Georgia Southern’s Tyler Bass and Stanford’s Jet Toner are among those viewed as possible draft picks.