Leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we'll try to answer one question every day as a way of giving you a better idea of where we'll have our focus trained when practices begin. Today we start at tight end, where Bill Belichick will have his work cut out for him trying to figure out what to do following Rob Gronkowski's retirement.
Rob Gronkowski is retired. For now. And if you're one to read into Instagram posts — who isn't? — then you might be coming around to the idea that he's going to stay retired for a while.
That means there are no quick-and-easy answers to the questions surrounding the tight end spot at One Patriots Place.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins is no longer in the mix. Ben Watson will be on the field when training camp begins next week, but he'll be suspended for the first four games of the regular season after violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy.
It's looking like the starting gig could come down to two players who combined for 24 catches last season. Matt LaCosse had a career-high 24 catches last season with the Broncos. Ryan Izzo, a seventh-round draft pick in 2018, is still waiting for his first regular-season snaps after spending his rookie year on injured reserve.
The Patriots have typically employed tight ends who can do a little bit of everything. That's what made them valuable in New England's offense. That's what made the position so difficult to pick up at times. But whether it was Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, Watson during his first run with the team, Christian Fauria or Daniel Graham . . . Bill Belichick has long had players who can move large humans in the running game and serve as capable (or better) pass-catchers.
Yes, there have been tight ends like Jacob Hollister, Dwayne Allen, Matt Lengel, A.J. Derby, Michael Hoomanawanui, Matt Mulligan, Michael Williams, Aaron Hernandez and Alge Crumpler who've played specific roles within the Patriots offense. But having a do-it-all threat made it easier to change on the fly. It made the offense a little more unpredictable.
For the first four weeks of the season, it's looking like the Patriots won't have that luxury.
"That's gotta be a position of strength," Tom Brady said during minicamp, "even if it's not one player but multiple players doing different roles. There were times in my career before that where we've had similar approaches."
This feels like one of those times. LaCosse — who ran with Brady during minicamp alongside other projected offensive starters — may serve as the team's top pass-catching option. Izzo, a hearty blocker at Florida State who showed flashes as a receiver last summer, may end up the top run-blocking option.
That could change, of course. This is why camp matters.
When the pads come on after a few days of practice, will LaCosse show that he can clear space as an in-line player? He's listed at 6-foot-5, 255 pounds. It's not out of the realm of possibility that he will effectively be throwing his weight around if given the chance.
What about Izzo? What if he consistently comes down with what's thrown his way? What if his flashes as a receiver are sustained this summer? Could he be a true every-down option . . . at least until Watson is back? The good news for Izzo is that this was a run-heavy offense late last year. If that's the plan once again, then the better blocker in camp may have a path to more playing time.
Andrew Beck, the undrafted rookie tight end out of Texas, looks more like a fullback. He took reps with James Develin and Jakob Johnson throughout minicamp and could be valuable insurance for Develin in a system that values its lead blockers out of the backfield.
Stephen Anderson, meanwhile, looks like a "move" tight end only who could face an uphill battle at a roster spot. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, he's listed as having almost the same measurements as rookie receiver N'Keal Harry at this year's NFL Scouting Combine (6-2.5, 228 pounds).
The reality is, however the Patriots attempt to replace Gronkowski, there will be no replacing him. They'll need to get more production from their backs and their receivers — particularly when all options are covered and Brady needs to be bailed out — in order to help make up for what's been lost in the passing game. They may have to turn to an extra offensive lineman at times for a reasonable facsimile of what Gronkowski provided as a blocker.
Someone is going to have to man the position, though. And while Belichick's top two options for the first month of the season are seriously lacking in-game experience, they'll have an opportunity to prove they belong over the course of the next month.
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