Patriots

2020 NFL Draft player rankings: Top 5 tight ends available

2020 NFL Draft player rankings: Top 5 tight ends available

After witnessing the New England Patriots' offensive struggles without Rob Gronkowski in 2019, there's no doubt they have a glaring need at tight end.

That isn't to say there are any Gronks out there to acquire -- they don't grow on trees -- but an upgrade certainly is in order following an abysmal output from the Matt LaCosse/Ryan Izzo/Benjamin Watson trio.

The question is, are there really any major upgrades out there? All of the top free-agent tight ends are off the board, so the Patriots may have to look to the draft. And unless the Patriots can snag one of the top few options, they're probably out of luck as the position isn't all that deep this year.

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

Nevertheless, here are the top five tight ends in the 2020 NFL Draft class.

1. Cole Kmet

College: Notre Dame
Class: Junior
2019 stats: 43 receptions, 515 yards, six touchdowns

Kmet is likely to be the first tight end taken following a successful junior season and an impressive combine showing in which he ran a 4.7 40-yard dash. He became a vital part of Notre Dame's passing game in 2019 following a modest offensive output his sophomore year. At 6-foot-6, 262 pounds, Kmet certainly has the size to succeed in the NFL and should be a starter out the gate.

The Patriots might need to make a draft trade to get into position to draft Kmet, a scenario Phil Perry predicted in his most recent 2020 NFL Mock Draft.

Projected Round: Third

2. Adam Trautman

College: Dayton
Class: Senior
2019 stats: 70 receptions, 916 yards, 14 touchdowns

Sure, it was against lesser competition, but Trautman was flat-out dominant in 2019 for the Dayton Flyers. Like Kmet, Trautman is a big target (6-5, 255) who had an impressive combine performance. If it isn't Kmet first off the tight end board, it'll be Trautman.

NBC Sports Boston's own Phil Perry had the Patriots picking Trautman in his seven-round mock draft 1.0:

Trautman (6-5, 255) has some wiggle to him for a big man and posted a ridiculous 6.78 three-cone drill to accompany a strong 34.5-inch vertical at the combine. He's a quarterback-turned-tight-end who dominated FCS competition with the Flyers as a receiver and a blocker. (Though the latter is where he needs polish.) Then he went to the Senior Bowl, saw some of the best players in the country, and acquitted himself well in both areas.

Projected Round: Third

3. Brycen Hopkins

College: Purdue
Class: Redshirt Senior
2019 stats: 61 receptions, 830 yards, seven touchdowns

Hopkins needs to improve in the blocking game, but he should succeed in the NFL as a vertical threat with his speed (4.66 in the 40). The 6-4, 245-pounder is a raw talent -- he didn't play football until high school -- but still enters the 2020 draft as one of the top players available at the position. Drops are an area of concern.

Projected Round: Third or Fourth

4. Hunter Bryant

College: Washington
Class: Junior
2019 stats: 52 receptions, 825 yards, three touchdowns

Bryant was stellar in the passing game with Washington in 2019, particularly with his run-after-catch ability. Although he does have a history of knee injuries and is a bit undersized (6-2, 248), Bryant is still talented enough to be one of the first few tight ends off the board this year.

Projected Round: Third or Fourth

5. Thaddeus Moss

College: LSU
Class: Junior
2019 stats: 47 receptions, 570 yards, four touchdowns

Like father, like son. NFL legend Randy Moss' son Thaddeus has impressive hands that will make him a coveted tight end in this draft. Moss didn't work out at the combine due to a foot injury, but that shouldn't hurt his draft stock too much. He's clearly one of the top pass-catchers in this group.

Projected Round: Third or Fourth

Report: Patriots kicker Justin Rohrwasser removed controversial tattoo

Report: Patriots kicker Justin Rohrwasser removed controversial tattoo

"I knew I had to have it totally taken off of my body."

In April, that's what Patriots rookie kicker Justin Rohrwasser told WBZ's Steve Burton about a controversial Three Percenters tattoo on his left arm that gained instant notoriety after he was drafted by New England.

Well, it appears he has followed through on that promise.

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

According to TMZ Sports, the 23-year-old has had the tattoo removed. The report states that Rohrwasser started the painful removal process right after the NFL Draft.

After the Patriots selected the Marshall kicker in the fifth round of the draft, there was a public outcry about the tattoo displaying the logo of the right-wing militia group, which has been described as racist and anti-government. Rohrwasser had said he got the tattoo when he was 18 as a way to support the military, but didn't realize its other use.

"It's shameful that I had it on there ignorantly," Rohrwasser told Burton. "I'm sorry for all my (friends) and family that have to defend me. Putting them in that compromising position is one of the biggest regrets I'll ever have. To them, I'm sorry. I'm going to learn from this. I'm going to take ownership of it. This is not who I am. No matter what, that's not who I am. Hopefully, you will all find that out."

Though he might still face questions about the tattoo when the Patriots open training camp later this month, removing the tattoo should keep the issue from being a huge distraction during his first NFL season.

How Cam Newton's 'up to' $7.5 million contract fits under Patriots salary cap

How Cam Newton's 'up to' $7.5 million contract fits under Patriots salary cap

How did the Patriots pull this off? How did a team that had no financial breathing room, no salary-cap space, go ahead and sign Cam Newton to a contract that's worth up to $7.5 million?

The key words there are "up to."

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio drew up a deal that would pay Newton the way other quarterback reclamation projects have been paid, if he performs. In the meantime, his salary-cap figure for 2020 comes in at just a smidgen higher than that of long-snapper Joe Cardona.

Let that sink in.

ALPHABET SOUP

Understanding how the Patriots were able to pull that off — pay Newton the going rate for a quarterback looking to revive his career, while simultaneously getting his salary on their books when they had next to no cap space — requires an understanding of the letters "NLTBE."

That acronym stands for "not likely to be earned," and it describes the majority of the incentives Newton received in his new deal with the Patriots. By NFL rule, NLTBE incentives do not count against the salary cap immediately. NLTBE incentive markers are markers that a player didn't achieve the season prior. If those markers are reached, then that incentive payment hits the following season's salary cap.

(As you might guess, LTBE incentive markers are markers a player did hit the season prior. LTBE incentives are counted against the cap upon the player's deal being signed.)

For example, if a player did not throw for 3,000 yards in 2019 but would be paid a $1 million bonus for reaching the 3,000-yard passing mark in 2020, that would be considered an incentive that is NLTBE. It would not count against the 2020 cap. If that 3,000-yard mark is reached in 2020, it would count toward the 2021 cap.

We can deduce then that the $5.75 million in available incentives included in Newton's deal did not count against the Patriots cap for 2020. They couldn't. The team didn't have enough cap space on hand to give him that kind of money in LTBE incentives. The Patriots had less than $1 million in space prior to agreeing to terms with Newton, per Patriots cap expert Miguel Benzan.

We don't yet know the specific markers Newton has to hit to earn his 2020 incentives, but because he played in only two games last season, the Patriots could have given him very reasonable numbers to reach and they still wouldn't count against the cap immediately because they'd be NLTBE. 

For instance, New England could've given Newton bonuses for playing in three games, passing for 600 yards and throwing one touchdown. Because he didn't hit any of those numbers in 2019 — he played in just two games and threw for 572 yards without any touchdowns — they'd all be considered NLTBE and not counted against the 2020 cap. In all likelihood, though, it's going to be a little more difficult than that for Newton to reach the incentives laid out for him.

Listen and subscribe to Tom E. Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast:

WARNING: MATH AHEAD

So if $5.75 million of Newton's "up to" $7.5 million contract with the Patriots won't count against the cap, what will?

Newton's veteran-minimum $1.05 million contract, for one, will count. That's the minimum under the new collective bargaining agreement for players with at least seven years of NFL service.

Additionally, two games of Newton's $700,000 in per-game roster bonuses will count against the cap. If he's provided $700,000 total in per-game roster bonuses, that means he'll be owed $43,750 for each of the 16 regular-season games he's on the Patriots roster. Two games of per-game roster bonus — $87,500 — counts against the 2020 cap because it's LTBE; he played in two games in 2019. The rest of those per-game roster bonuses are considered NLTBE but will count against the cap with each game he plays. So if he plays in all 16 games, by the end of the 2020 season, his cap number will be $1.75 million. Active roster bonuses are the only earned NLTBE incentives that hit a current year's cap, Benzan relayed. 

Therefore, Newton's cap number for New England in 2020 — his base salary plus two games of roster bonuses — comes to $1,137,500. That's slightly more than the $1.08 million cap number assigned to Cardona and the $1.05 million number assigned to fellow quarterback Brian Hoyer for this coming season. It's slightly less than fullback Dan Vitale's 2020 cap hit of $1,287,500. 

Now the question is, how did the Patriots fit Newton under their cap if they had less than $1 million in cap space left prior to landing him? His cap number is over $1 million, isn't it?

It is. But there's an accounting rule the NFL uses to include only the contracts of the players with the top-51 base salaries against a team's cap until active rosters are finalized.

Newton's cap number replaces what was the No. 51 salary on the 90-man roster prior to Newton's signing. According to Benzan, that No. 51 slot was assigned to outside linebacker Tashawn Bower. Because the difference in cap numbers between Newton and Bower is only a few hundred thousand dollars, the Patriots had enough space to add Newton once Bower fell below the No. 51 spot.

If the Patriots were snug up against the cap before, they're even more so now. By Benzan's estimates, they have $263,489 left in cap room. To handle regular in-season spending, they'll need to clear out more space eventually. Re-working Joe Thuney's contract to reduce his nearly $15 million cap hit, for instance, could free up some significant cap room quickly. 

MAXING OUT

If Newton makes the team, plays, and plays well, he may have a chance to reach the full $7.5 million value of the deal. But why $7.5 million? Why settle there?

Marcus Mariota is getting a $7.5 million base salary to be the No. 2 for the Raiders in 2020. Teddy Bridgewater made about that much in 2019 from the Saints. Both were passers in need of a fresh start. Both carried a certain level of uncertainty.

The same is true for Newton in New England, though his résumé is vastly more impressive than that of either of those other quarterbacks when they signed their contracts.

It's the definition of a low-risk, high-reward deal. It just required a little bit of creativity to get it in under the minimal amount of cap space the Patriots had available for 2020.