Patriots

Patriots have backed themselves into a corner at tight end

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Patriots have backed themselves into a corner at tight end

Forty tight ends have been drafted since 2016.

The Patriots have taken one – Ryan Izzo from Florida State with the 250th overall pick last year. He was the 15th tight end drafted.

Even with the sand running out of Rob Gronkowski’s career hourglass, the Patriots spent their picks on three defensive backs (including the departed Cyrus Jones in the second round of 2016), four linebackers from whom they’ve gotten a total of 47 games played (44 from Elandon Roberts) and three offensive tackles — none of whom have played a regular-season snap.

Hey, but a lot of those guys got hurt! Indeed they did. Productive careers may still await Isaiah Wynn, Duke Dawson, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Christian Sam. Godspeed Antonio Garcia. But the point is, the Patriots have been fiddling around at other spots while the tight end position burns.

Seven of the drafted tight ends last year had 20 or more catches, and four had more than 30, led by the Jets' Chris Herndon and Carolina’s Ian Thomas. They were both fourth-round picks. The 2017 crop included three first-rounders, Evan Engram of the Giants and Tampa’s O.J. Howard. They have 257 receptions between them. The most productive pass-catching tight end from that draft is George Kittle, a fifth-rounder from Iowa who’s made 131 catches for 1,892 yards.

In 2016, there were no first-round tight ends but San Diego’s Hunter Henry (81 catches, 1,057 yards in 2016 and ’17) and Atlanta’s Austin Hooper (139 catches, 1,457 yards in three years) were both third-round picks.

There have been many tight ends talented enough to produce at the NFL level that New England passed on drafting.

Meanwhile, the non-Gronk production at tight end from Jacob Hollister, Dwayne Allen and Martellus Bennett over the past three seasons combined is 72 catches for 856 yards. And Bennett contributed 55 of the catches and 701 of the yards.

Amid this crisis, the Patriots have struggled to three Super Bowls appearances, winning only two. Yeah, yeah, yeah, fine.

And the team has added 26-year-old Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, who is six feet, five inches and 262 pounds of untapped potential after catching passes from the likes of Blake Bortles, Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick (the bad Jets version).

It’s time for them to dive headlong into the position and Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff said on Quick Slants the Podcast this week that – even though they’ve waited – this is a very good time to do it.

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After discussing the deep but seemingly not elite wide receiver crop, Dimitroff said, “When we’re talking about the tight ends, that’s kinda flipped. Usually tight ends are going to be in that spot where they are seconds and thirds but there are a number of (good) tight ends.

“I think there will be potentially two in the first round and then there’s another group that will go in the second round,” he added. “That’s never the way it used to be. You used to be able to find a tight end in the third round, so this is a good group.”

The consensus top two are T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant from Iowa. We’ve done much reporting on them. There’s also Irv Smith from Alabama and Jace Sternberger from Texas A&M then Kahale Warring and Dawson Knox from San Diego State and Ole Miss respectively.

The Patriots are going to find a tight end. Maybe more than one. And they will get Izzo back and maybe he makes strides. Meanwhile, Hollister is a good pass-catcher; he just hasn’t stayed healthy enough to make an impact and gain trust.

But the fact remains it hasn’t been a priority position in the draft for New England. And that’s not just in the past three seasons, when a lot of good tight ends came into the league, but going back to 2014 which is the draft following the arrest and release of Aaron Hernandez. Izzo and A.J. Derby are the only tight ends they’ve drafted since 2014.

Bennett, Allen and Scott Chandler are the only veteran tight ends who’ve come in and caught passes.  

Now they need to nail it.

Click here for Phil Perry's Mock NFL Draft 5.0>>>>

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Gunner Olszewski earning trust of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick with hard work

Gunner Olszewski earning trust of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick with hard work

The New England Patriots have had an unsettled receiver room for most of the 2019 season. At one time, it seemed like they had one of the best groups in the league. But the release of Antonio Brown and the team's decision to trade Demaryius Thomas left them a bit weaker at the position. And in recent weeks, they have been thin at the position due to injuries.

Phillip Dorsett (hamstring), Josh Gordon (knee/ankle), and Julian Edelman (chest) have all been dealing with various maladies over the course of the first six weeks of the season. Additionally, first-round rookie N'Keal Harry has been on IR since just after the team's final cuts.

With these absences, some unexpected contributors have been able to step up. And one of them is Gunner Olszewski. The undrafted rookie out of Bemidji State has earned a big role as a return man and has recently seen an increase in offensive action. And so far, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has been impressed with his energy and effort.

"Gunner works really hard," Belichick told reporters at Saturday's media availability. "He gives a lot of effort to do, again, whatever we ask him to do. Whether that’s return kicks, cover kicks, block, catch – he works really hard. Just gives his best all of the time, so you can’t ask for anything more than that. He keeps getting better, so we’ll see where it goes. But, yeah, he’s a good, hard worker."

Of course, hard work is only part of the equation. In the Patriots' offense, it's important to have chemistry with Tom Brady. Has Olszewski done enough to earn Brady's trust so far?

"Yeah, definitely," Brady said when asked about his level of trust in Olszewski. "I think they’re – like I said, those guys are – when you’re young, you gain trust in practice, and a lot of it’s doing the right thing over and over and over again. Those guys are working at it. I mean, they’ve been here a short period of time, so try to get as many reps as you can and talk about things. You get coached up, and any young player, they’re trying to earn the trust of the coach and the players every day."

This is seemingly the most positive Brady has felt about his young receiving weapons this year. Perhaps the team's success against the New York Giants despite being limited to only one formation because of their lack of healthy personnel had an impact on Brady. And maybe that helped him to become more confidence in Olszewski and fellow undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers.

Either way, Brady will likely have to look Olszewski's way a bit more than usual on Monday night against the New York Jets. Josh Gordon is out for the game and so too are tight ends Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo. That should afford Olszewski a good opportunity to make his presence felt.

Tom E. Curran's Patriots-Jets Week 7 Preview>>>

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Tom E. Curran's Patriots-Jets Preview: Pats facing MNF challenge

Tom E. Curran's Patriots-Jets Preview: Pats facing MNF challenge

The Patriots have had one game in which there was even a shred of doubt about the outcome into the fourth quarter. And even then, did anyone figure the Bills were going to score? Exactly.

But Monday night at MetLife the Patriots could get their second decent challenge of the season.

Despite their 1-4 record, the Jets just got capable quarterback Sam Darnold back and his presence made a huge difference in the team’s win over Dallas last week. As for the Patriots offense, which isn’t working at optimal potency, the Jets did a nice job against the Patriots in the first meeting between the teams after New England walked through them on their first three drives.

With 11 days to prepare for this, Josh McDaniels is sure to have hatched something to get Gregg Williams’ defense off-balance. But the Patriots are still hamstrung on offense by their personnel so this one could turn into a slugfest.

Click here for Tom E. Curran's full Week 7 Patriots preview>>>