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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Patriots DE Chase Winovich pleads for Tom Brady to stay in New England

Patriots DE Chase Winovich pleads for Tom Brady to stay in New England

Chase Winovich is all of New England right about now.

The Patriots defensive end clearly isn't a fan of the idea that Tom Brady may suit up for a new team in 2020. On Wednesday, he took to Instagram to beg Brady to re-sign with the Pats, and he did so in hilarious fashion.

"'To stay or to stay... 🤔' #pleaseDad #NotAllowedtoLeave #goat #shakespeare," Winovich wrote.


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The "Shakespeare" is a nice touch, but history tells us Brady may not be amused. Winovich may be on to something with the "#pleaseDad" hashtag, though.

Winovich, drafted out of Michigan 19 years after his favorite QB and fellow Wolverine, will have to wait impatiently like the rest of us until Brady makes his much-anticipated decision. The 42-year-old officially becomes a free agent March 18 if he and the Patriots can't agree on a contract extension before then.

The Tennessee Titans, Los Angeles Chargers, and Las Vegas Raiders each have been named as potential suitors for Brady in free agency.

Ex-Patriots star Rob Gronkowski reveals where he wanted to go in 2010 NFL Draft

Ex-Patriots star Rob Gronkowski reveals where he wanted to go in 2010 NFL Draft

Rob Gronkowski envisioned beginning his NFL career in Arizona.

Gronkowski played two seasons at the University of Arizona and was one of the best tight end prospects entering the 2010 NFL Draft. His initial preference was to make the 2-hour trip from Tuscon to Glendale and play for the Arizona Cardinals. The Kurt Warner era in Arizona had just ended and the team needed a tight end. On paper, the Cardinals and Gronkowski were a perfect match.

“I loved being in the state of Arizona … I was praying that they would take me because I wanted to go there,” Gronkowski said Tuesday on Arizona radio station 98.7 FM's "Doug & Wolf" show. “I felt like they needed a tight end and they brought me in for a little visit.”

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The visit didn't go very well.

“I took a visit there and everything, I could tell they had no interest in me,” Gronkowski said. “I could tell, the people that brought me in, they were just bringing me in to bring me in.”

Concerns over Gronkowski's back played a part in him dropping to the second round, where the Patriots took a chance on him with the 42nd overall pick. Gronkowski played nine years for the Patriots and became arguably the greatest tight end in pro football history.

He also played a part in three Super Bowl-winning Patriots teams, including a Super Bowl LIII triumph over the Los Angeles Rams in February of 2019 that turned out to be his last NFL game. He retired in March of last year.

The Cardinals are still searching for an elite tight end 10 years later. The position has been an area of weakness for Arizona throughout the last decade. According to USA TODAY, Gronkowski's 80 career receiving touchdowns are 54 more than every Cardinals tight end combined (26 TDs) from 2010 through 2018. 

The Cardinals did take a tight end in the 2010 draft with the selection of Jim Dray in the seventh round. He played in 56 games (and tallied just two receiving touchdowns) for the Cardinals over a seven-year career that also included time with three other teams.

Gronkowski would've been great for the Cardinals, and he was right in their backyard.

Perry: Vrabel and others tiptoe around Brady buzz at combine