Patriots

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: Answers at tight end available in free agency

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: Answers at tight end available in free agency

Editor's Note: Phil Perry will be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots' position groups between now and when the NFL's 2020 free agency period begins, spotlighting the current roster and what names might be available on the market.

Arguably the weakest tight end group in the NFL, the Patriots got little production from the trio of Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo for much of the year — both as receivers and run-blockers. After featuring a Hall of Famer at that position for the previous decade in Rob Gronkowski, it was a steep drop-off in terms of the performance here.

All three options missed time while hurt, and Watson was suspended the first four games of the year. None cracked 200 yards receiving. They combined for two touchdowns. They held the No. 56 (LaCosse), 96 (Watson) and 130 (Izzo) spots among run-blockers at the position in 2019, per Pro Football Focus.

Watson has announced he'll retire, but both Izzo and LaCosse are both on the roster for 2020. Still, this position needs addressing maybe more so than any other on the roster. 

PLAYER-BY-PLAYER LOWDOWN

Matt LaCosse: Signed on Day 1 of free agency last March, LaCosse never seemed to fully get his legs under him in the Patriots offense. He missed the season-opener injured and played just two games before the Patriots bye. He caught six passes in the team's final four games. The Patriots could release him and save over $1 million against the cap with just $150,000 of dead money counting toward their books.

Ryan Izzo: The second-year tight end out of Florida State took a red-shirt year in 2018 and played in six games last season. He was targeted nine times, caught six passes and scored once in Washington. He's under contract through 2021.

Ben Watson: Watson's year got off to a rocky start as he was released before he could be activated off of the suspended list. A week later, he was signed to try to provide the Patriots passing game with a bit of a boost. With LaCosse injured and Izzo the only occasional contributor, the position was in dire need. In Week 11 he caught three passes for 52 yards in a win over the Eagles, which was his highest yardage output of the year. He turned 39 on December 18 and will apparently stay retired after 15 years in the league. 

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James Develin: We'll include Patriots fullbacks in this conversation since those players meet with the tight ends on a daily basis in New England. Develin suffered a neck injury and was placed on injured reserve after just two games. He did remain with the team and served as somewhat of a coaching assistant, serving as a presence on the sidelines on game days and in the locker room during the week. He's under contract for one more season. 

Jakob Johnson: Brought to the Patriots via the International Player Pathway Program, Bill Belichick was very open about the fact that the Patriots would have never taken a chance on Johnson had it not been for the league mandating that each AFC East club take on an international player to serve as an 11th player on their practice squad in 2019. Johnson impressed to the point that the Patriots actually activated him to the roster. He played in four games before suffering a shoulder injury that landed him on IR. He's under contract for 2020.

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES: BIG SWINGS

Hunter Henry: The Patriots may want to dip into free-agency to address their tight end spot. It's a difficult position to grasp for young players for a variety of reasons — the volume in the running and passing games, in particular, can be overwhelming — meaning a veteran might be a better option for a team that has an immediate need like New England.

Henry is arguably the best of the bunch. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder recorded a career-high 652 yards last season on 55 grabs. He's not a game-changer in the running game — PFF ranked him as the league's 73rd best run-blocker at the position last season — but the Patriots need weapons, and Henry might be the best where they need the most help. Would the Patriots be willing to pony up about $9 million per year for him, though?

Austin Hooper: This 6-foot-4, 254-pounder has done a better job of staying healthy (missed only three games the last three seasons) than Henry (missed all of 2018) and he's been more productive in a pass-happy offense. Hooper had 75 catches for 787 yards and six scores last year. The catch? It might cost about $10 million per year to lock him up. Or he may never become available. He's a candidate to be franchised this offseason. Like Henry, Hooper's not moving mountains in the run game (PFF's No. 77 run-blocker), but he's a dynamic receiver in the short-to-intermediate range. 

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES: FLAWED BUT INTRIGUING

Tyler Eifert: He's a seven-year veteran. He's played 59 of a possible 112 games in that time. He's a career Bengal. But the knocks on Eifert's resume should make him incredibly affordable in 2020. And though he played just six games in 2017 and 2018 combined, he bounced back this season to play in all 16, catching 43 passes for 436 yards. 

Eric Ebron: The Colts didn't seem thrilled with the way Ebron's season went. He landed on injured reserve with an ankle issue after catching 31 passes for 375 yards and three scores. After the season, general manager Chris Ballard told reporters the team would be moving on. Ebron is only a season removed from catching 66 passes and 13 touchdowns. If he's healthy, there's no doubt he'd provide the tight end group in New England a talent upgrade.

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Updated Patriots cornerback depth chart after Michael Jackson trade with Lions

Updated Patriots cornerback depth chart after Michael Jackson trade with Lions

The New England Patriots added even more depth to an elite group of cornerbacks Sunday by acquiring Michael Jackson in a trade with the Detroit Lions.

Jackson, who's listed at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, was a fifth-round draft pick by the Dallas Cowboys in 2019. The Detroit Lions signed him off the Cowboys practice squad last season and he played in one game for the NFC North team.

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Here's an updated look at the Patriots' cornerback depth chart with Jackson in the fold:

--Stephon Gilmore
--Jason McCourty
--J.C. Jackson
--Jonathan Jones
--Joejuan Williams
--Michael Jackson
--Myles Bryant
--D’Angelo Ross

It should be noted that Justin Bethel is listed at cornerback, but most of his snaps come on special teams. 

A strong case could be made that cornerback is the deepest position on the Patriots roster. The group is led by Stephon Gilmore, who became the first Patriot ever to win the AP's NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2019. Gilmore is the league's best cornerback and has earned first team All-Pro selections in back-to-back seasons. 

He's not the only talented cornerback in the Patriots secondary, though. 

J.C. Jackson excelled in coverage last season, too, especially on passes beyond 20 yards. In fact, Jackson had the lowest passer rating allowed when targeted of all cornerbacks in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus.

One of the most intriguing players in the Patriots secondary is second-year cornerback Joejuan Williams. He was a second-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2019 but saw limited playing time as a rookie.

The depth of the Patriots defense has been hit hard in recent months due to free agent departures and veterans opting out of the 2020 season amid concerns over COVID-19. One position that has remained largely intact is cornerback, and barring any significant injuries, it could be the team's most productive position this coming season.

Patriots acquire CB Michael Jackson in trade with Lions

Patriots acquire CB Michael Jackson in trade with Lions

The New England Patriots have added another cornerback to their depth chart.

On Sunday, they announced they've acquired Michael Jackson from the Detroit Lions for an undisclosed 2022 draft pick.


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Jackson was selected in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft (158th overall) by the Dallas Cowboys out of Miami. He started his rookie season on Dallas' practice squad before being signed by Detroit.

The 23-year-old played in only one game last season for the Lions.

Jackson joins a Patriots cornerback group that currently consists of Stephon Gilmore, Jonathan Jones, Joejuan Williams, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson, D'Angelo Ross, Justin Bethel, and Myles Bryant.