Patriots

How will the Patriots tight end puzzle come together in training camp?

How will the Patriots tight end puzzle come together in training camp?

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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Revisiting the 'enlightening' lesson Kobe Bryant taught Bill Belichick, Patriots

Revisiting the 'enlightening' lesson Kobe Bryant taught Bill Belichick, Patriots

In a statement Tuesday, Bill Belichick said he had "never witnessed a group as captivated" as the New England Patriots when Kobe Bryant spoke to the team in May 2018.

Belichick wasn't just paying lip service.

On Tuesday, NFL Films resurfaced a clip from HBO's "The Art of Coaching" documentary about Belichick and Alabama head coach Nick Saban in which both coaching legends reflected on their interactions with Bryant.

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These comments came in March 2019, more than 10 months before Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others were tragically killed Sunday in a helicopter crash.

Here's what Belichick had to say at the time about Bryant's message to the Patriots:

Another thing he said to us, which was an awesome message, was, "When I was 25 (years old), I could go out and score 30 (points). When I was 35, 38, I could score 30, but it wasn't the same way. I had to learn how to play without the ball. I had to learn how to play in less space. I had to learn how to use picks differently. I couldn't just drive to the basket like I could in my younger days. I could still score, but I had to change my game."

That was so enlightening for all our players that heard that. Because you're sitting there looking at his career and then we're all thinking about ours. It's changed for me just like it's changed for the players.

Belichick is a student of football. He has won six Super Bowl titles over 20 years in New England by constantly adapting, changing his approach as a head coach and general manager to stay ahead of the game's shifting trends.

Belichick clearly saw the same trait in Bryant, who averaged 22.3 points per game at age 36 (after tearing his Achilles tendon) by altering his style of play after hours of study and practice. The 42-year-old Tom Brady obviously took Bryant's message to heart, as well.

Bryant is gone much too soon at age 41, but the impact he had on players and coaches of all sports will live on.

How Jimmy Garoppolo won his 49ers teammates over soon after Patriots trade: 'It was sick'

How Jimmy Garoppolo won his 49ers teammates over soon after Patriots trade: 'It was sick'

MIAMI -- George Kittle was dressed as a pirate. It was the day before Halloween of his rookie season. He was going to celebrate the holiday as any 24-year-old would. Then, as any 24-year-old would, he peeked down at his phone to check on a notification.

Jimmy Garoppolo had been traded by the Patriots to Kittle's 49ers. He had a new quarterback.

"I said, 'Wow, that's really interesting.' It was cool," Kittle remembered. "Jimmy G. Two Super Bowls. Hell of a leader. It's fun to have someone like that."

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Kittle and other Niners this week remembered the deal that sent Garoppolo to San Francisco and in the process changed the course of the franchise. They couldn't have known exactly what they had then. Garoppolo had only two NFL starts to his name. But now, sitting in front of microphones in Miami in the days leading up to Super Bowl LIV, they couldn't believe their good fortune that Garoppolo landed in their laps. 

The hints that they had something in Garoppolo came early. 

"Honestly, it sounds cliche but it's real, it was at the first practice," said fullback Kyle Juszczyk. "He ran the scout team the first day. And that first period he absolutely diced our defense. You could see it in his footwork, his mechanics, the confidence that he emitted. You could see that this guy was the real deal."

For Kittle, the sign came loud and clear that his offense had a new leader. It came before Garoppolo even made his first throw from under center. 

"It was funny, his first play under center, he has a really good cadence," Kittle said, referring to the quarterback's calls at the line of scrimmage. "He has a good voice for it. Right after he said, 'Hut! Hut! Hike!' for the first time, everyone was like, 'Whoa! Nice!' It was sick."  

"Very authoritative," offensive tackle Joe Staley said of Garoppolo's line-of-scrimmage vocals. The 13-year veteran smiled and added, "He's commanding. Lets you know he's there."

It came together quickly for Garoppolo in his second professional stop. He started five games after being traded, winning all five, and completing 67.4 percent of his passes at a clip of 8.8 yards per attempt. 

He tore his ACL after three games the following season, but rediscovered his 2017 form this season. The Niners went 13-3 with Garoppolo taking the snaps. He completed 69.1 percent of his throws (fourth in the NFL), threw 27 touchdown passes (sixth), and put up an 8.4 yards per attempt figure (third). 

"I didn't really know much, actually," Staley said of Garoppolo's days in New England. "I remember the one game he had in Arizona where he started and did really, really well. But didn't know much. Didn't have much of a reaction [to the trade] either way. Knew everyone was really high on him. 

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"Then he came in here and he really blew me away. In the huddle. All the little nuances of being a quarterback. The command that he had. His quick release. You could definitely tell that he was trained in that Patriots system as far as getting rid of the ball fast, which is awesome for an offensive lineman. He's continued to grow and develop since he's been here. It's been awesome to see him get to this point."

The Niners are back in the Super Bowl after a 4-12 record last season. Back in the Super Bowl with a chance to win one for the first time since January 1995. And thanks in part to Tom Brady continuing to play at an MVP level the season Garoppolo was dealt, thanks to the Patriots holding onto Garoppolo until midseason that year, all it cost the Niners to change everything was a second-round pick.

"I think," Juszczyk said, "we got him for a bargain."