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.
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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