Prototypical Patriots: Tight end fits for life after Gronk
Even after signing Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the wake of Rob Gronkowski's retirement, the Patriots will be looking for capable bodies to play tight end in 2019 and beyond. What that signing did, though, is free up the Patriots to take a wait-and-see approach at the position rather than extend themselves for one of the top-ranked players in this year's draft class; Seferian-Jenkins, when healthy, has the size and skill to be a No. 1 tight end.
What does that mean for us? Time to get even more familiar with the middle- and late-round players at that spot. That's exactly what we'll do here, laying out which players -- from Day 1 types to Day 3 dice-rolls -- look like the best fits for the Patriots based on their physical skill sets and college production.
Let's lay out what the Patriots like at this spot. They've drafted 14 tight ends under Bill Belichick, and some trends have emerged. Size, obviously, is important. The "prototype" falls in the 6-foot-4 range and a shade over 250 pounds. Big hands (about 10 inches) are also preferred. Athleticism matters, too. Quick 40 times (4.7-second range) and three-cone drills (7.0-second range) could help a player find his way onto the Patriots roster, as will legitimate lower-body explosiveness (35-inch vertical or thereabouts).
T.J. HOCKENSON, IOWA, 6-5, 251 POUNDS
There is no better fit for the Patriots than Hockenson. We've had him mocked to the Patriots twice. We've drooled over him on podcasts. We've noted his love for Belichick's friends in the Ferentz family. Problem is, he's the best fit at tight end for every team in the league. His hands (9.5 inches), speed (4.70-second 40-yard dash), balance (7.02 three-cone), quickness (4.18 short shuttle), and explosiveness (37.5-inch vertical) all fall well within Patriots parameters, but in all likelihood they won't have a shot at him.
NOAH FANT, IOWA, 6-4, 249 POUNDS
There might be a planet out there where Fant is a prototype something, but as a tight end on this planet? He's a mold-breaker. His 4.5-second 40 placed him in the 96th percentile among tight ends drafted in the last 20 years, according to Mockdraftable.com, even though he's much heavier than many who'd be considered "move" tight ends and might've clocked faster times. His 6.81 three-cone time is about the same time clocked by shifty, 184-pound Clemson slot Hunter Renfrow (6.80). Fant isn't as effective a blocker as Hockenson, and his hands aren't as dependable. He's not an ideal fit. But his size and athleticism would put him in the "prototype" conversation for any team.
2019 NFL Draft Highlights: TE Noah Fant, Iowa
IRV SMITH, ALABAMA, 6-3, 242 POUNDS
Smith provides the perfect jumping off point to acknowledge that within the tight end position, there are three or four roles players could fill that require different physical skill sets. Hockenson, for instance, would be a dynamic dual-threat "Y." Fant looks like more of an oversized slot at the moment. There are plenty of blocking tight ends in this class (we'll get to them). Smith appears to be a true "move" tight end, a role Aaron Hernandez (6-2, 245) once filled. He put up big numbers in the SEC and could end up in New England with a good recommendation from Nick Saban.
An effective blocker who has experience in a variety of offensive alignments, Smith is not the change-of-direction athlete (7.32 three-cone, 4.33 short shuttle) that Hernandez was (6.83, 4.18), but in terms of size and straight-line speed they're similar (low 4.6 40 times). Smith would have a role in New England, and could be a complementary piece used alongside the much larger Seferian-Jenkins (6-5, 262 pounds). UCLA's Caleb Wilson (6-4, 240, 4.56 40) is another "move" player who has been extremely productive but might not quite meet New England's standards for explosiveness (29-inch vertical) or quickness (7.2 three-cone, 4.4 short shuttle).
2019 NFL Draft Highlights: TE Irv Smith, Jr., Alabama
KAHALE WARRING, SAN DIEGO STATE, 6-5, 252 POUNDS
Warring is relatively raw in how he handles himself as an in-line player (he picked up football late in his high school career), but his athleticism jumps off the tape . . . and it jumps off the page if you simply line up his combine measurables. He more than meets Patriots typical thresholds here with his size, his hands (9.75 inches), his speed (4.67 40) and his explosiveness (36.5-inch vert).
Though unrefined as a blocker, there seems to be potential there for him to serve in an all-purpose role. It may take some time, but if he's available in the third round, the Patriots may be willing to wait as they bide their time with Seferian-Jenkins for a season. Warring -- who played a variety of sports through high school, including basketball, water polo and cross country -- has athleticism that is hard to come by.
FOSTER MOREAU, LSU, 6-4, 253 POUNDS
Moreau is a potential multi-purpose tight end who didn't have too many opportunities to prove it playing out of a run-heavy offense during his collegiate career. But he impressed at the Senior Bowl, being named the top tight end in practices, and produced through the air when given the chance with the Tigers (10.1 yards per target, one drop on 27 targets last year, per PFF).
Athletically, Moreau's tests suggest he checks every box for the Patriots (4.66-second 40, 36.5-inch vertical, 7.16 three-cone, 4.11 short shuttle, 121-inch broad jump). His athleticism compares favorably to a Patriots first-rounder from early in Belichick's tenure. Back in 2002, Daniel Graham checked in at 6-3, 248 pounds with a 4.64 40, a 36-inch vert and a 118-inch broad jump. Moreau also lands relatively highly here because he wore the No. 18 at LSU, which is annually presented to the player who best exemplifies leadership and selflessness.
Could Irv Smith or Foster Moreau replace Rob Gronkowski?
DAWSON KNOX, OLE MISS, 6-4, 254 POUNDS
There are plenty of questions about Knox's game. But when it comes to what we're dealing with in the Prototypical Patriots series -- that which can be measured -- there's little doubt that his athleticism will play at the NFL level. He clocked a blazing 4.51-second 40 at his pro day to go along with a 7.12 three-cone time. His 34.5-inch vertical and 4.27 short shuttle are also right within the parameters of what the Patriots typically draft at this spot. Knox's testing numbers actually compare favorably to another Patriots first-rounder.
Ben Watson was much stronger on the bench (he did a whopping 34 reps to Knox's 16), but they match up similarly in terms of height and weight. And Knox tested slightly quicker than Watson did (4.57-second 40). Knox had what looked like shaky hands at times with the Rebels, and he was not a dominant blocker, but in the middle rounds the walk-on and former high school quarterback could provide the Patriots some value.
Could Noah Fant or Dawson Knox replace Rob Gronkowski?
JOSH OLIVER, SAN JOSE STATE, 6-5, 249 POUNDS
The aforementioned Mockdraftable.com is a fun tool this time of year since it allows you to find players whose physical profiles are similar. Anything you find there has to be taken with a grain of salt, but it paints a picture that can be helpful in getting a better understanding of draftable prospects. It is with that I say this: Don't type Rob Gronkowski's name into that website unless you want to become unreasonably excited about Oliver's NFL prospects.
Oliver is the first name that pops up in a Gronkowski search. Their hands measured exactly the same at 10.75 inches, and their 40s (4.63 seconds for Oliver, 4.68 for Gronkowski), verticals (34 inches, 33.5), broad jumps (117 inches, 119) and three-cone times (7.21 seconds, 7.18) are almost identical. Oliver doesn't have Gronkowski's size, but at 6-5, 249 pounds he has the frame and movement skills to go up and high-point passes down the field. Oliver is not considered to be much of a threat as a blocker at this stage, but as a Day 3 option he brings enough promise to the table that it shouldn't be a shock if the Patriots give him a shot.
2019 NFL Draft Highlights: TE Josh Oliver, San Jose St.
JACE STERNBERGER, TEXAS A&M, 6-4, 251 POUNDS
Sternberger is one of the players the Patriots have had in for a visit during the pre-draft process. His size and SEC production -- eighth in the class with 2.01 yards per route run, per PFF -- put him in the prototype conversation, but athletically he's not quite the specimen other Patriots tight ends have been.
His 4.75-second 40 is a tick slower than what the team has typically drafted, as is his 7.19 three-cone drill. His vertical (31.5 inches) and short shuttle (4.31) also leave a little to be desired. But as a big slot receiver who can stretch defenses vertically, Sternberger is considered one of the best available this year. Comp from Patriots rosters past? AJ Derby (6-4, 255), who ran a 4.72, a superior 6.99 three-cone and a 4.51 short shuttle. Derby was taken by the Patriots in the sixth round in 2015.
Could TJ Hockenson or Jace Sternberger replace Rob Gronkowski?
DREW SAMPLE, WASHINGTON, 6-5, 255 POUNDS
Told you we'd be hitting blocking tight ends. The Patriots might not have much interest in this spot as these players are typically taken late and because they spent a late-round pick on blocking tight end Ryan Izzo last spring. Still, they're worth mentioning since there are a few who seem to meet Patriots physical requirements for that role.
Sample, for example, is almost an Izzo clone when it comes to his physical profile. Izzo checked in at 6-5, 256 at last year's combine. Both clocked 7.15 three-cone times. Sample jumped a half-inch higher (33.5) in the vertical and ran a slightly faster short shuttle (4.31 versus 4.43). Like Izzo, Sample embraced his work in the run game in college and will likely do the same at the next level. Kaden Smith from Stanford (6-5, 255, 4.92 40) would be another late-round option if the Patriots wanted someone here who has experience in a pro-style offense. Dax Raymond of Utah State (6-5, 255, 4.73 40) also hit 7.15 seconds in the three-cone, but his hand size of 10.25 inches sets him apart a bit when it comes to the measurables.
TREVON WESCO, WEST VIRGINIA, 6-3, 267 POUNDS
Another future blocking specialist at the next level, Wesco actually checks in closer to former Patriots blocking specialist Dwayne Allen size-wise. Wesco was heavier at the combine than Allen (6-3, 255) was at his in 2012. Yet Wesco still tested similarly to the former Clemson standout.
They had identical 40s (4.89 seconds) and short shuttles (4.37 seconds), as well as near-identical three-cone times (7.12 for Allen, 7.18 for Wesco) and verticals (32 inches for Allen, 31 for Wesco). If the Patriots are going to maintain their beat-you-up at the line style of offense, and if they have any concerns about Izzo after he missed his rookie season, Wesco could be drafted on Day 3 and still play a key role.