Tight end names to know in the NFL Draft in a post-Gronk world
The Patriots face a bit of a conundrum at the tight end position, if you haven't noticed.
They lost the tight end who was without peer in his ability to change games with his receiving ability and blocking prowess. He was a big-play threat. He was trusted in critical situations. He moved other humans like an offensive tackle when asked. Rob Gronkowski was always going to be irreplaceable, whenever he retired. What makes it even more difficult for the Patriots to do their best to make up for his loss is that he retired weeks into free agency, limiting the team's options for veteran help. (Austin Seferian-Jenkins, anyone?!?)
The draft is rife with tight end talent, though, which bodes well for a team that needs one. But there are only a handful of players who look like they'll make an immediate impact, and even fewer seem like true do-it-all answers at the position. Finding "the next Gronk" is a fool's errand. But finding someone with the combination of ready-to-go blocking ability, requisite size, dependable hands and NFL-caliber athletic ability — even if none of those traits are on par with Gronkowski's — is almost as tough.
Let's run through some of the Day 1, 2 and 3 options at the position to try to get a sense for who the Patriots could be looking at depending on when they're willing to select a tight end.
DAY 1 OPTION: T.J. Hockenson, Iowa
The 6-foot-5, 251-pounder isn't as big as the guy he'd be replacing in New England, but he's the closest thing to Gronk in this year's class because he's shown that he can be a mauler in the running game as well as a big-play threat through the air. He's probably closer to former Iowa teammate George Kittle (second-team All-Pro with the Niners last year) — a good athlete with good size who understands what he's doing at the point of attack — than Gronkowski, which the Patriots would be fine with.
But how much would the team value that type of player? They may have to trade up into the top-15 to get Hockenson, which would be costly in terms of draft capital. If he slides at all, and the Patriots could move up to No. 21 (owned by the Seahawks) by dealing away their two compensatory third-rounders, it'd be a jump worth considering. The Patriots traded up in the first round twice back in 2012, yet this would be a massive leap.
If the goal is to improve the team for 2019 first and foremost, Hockenson seems ready to do just that.
DAY 1 OPTION: Noah Fant, Iowa
Fant lit up the combine — #asexpected — when he ran a 4.5 40-yard dash, jumped 39.5 inches in the vertical and clocked a 6.81-second three-cone. Those are remarkable numbers for someone weighing in at 249 pounds. He was a serviceable blocker at Iowa, but that wasn't necessarily his game, and he has 13 career drops to Hockenson's two.
Fant might have the highest ceiling in the class as a pass-catcher, and if paired with a blocking tight end (like last year's Patriots seventh-rounder Ryan Izzo?) maybe he'd make an NFL tight end room whole. Not sure Fant is New England's type, though, after he was docked playing time last season and head coach Kirk Ferentz (a Bill Belichick assistant in Cleveland) referred to Fant as a "specialist" — the indication being Fant is more receiver than complete tight end.
DAY 1 OPTION: Irv Smith Jr., Alabama
Smith could be available at the bottom of the first round and maybe into the top of the second. Might the Patriots wait until Day 2 to roll with this Nick Saban pupil? There are some questions about Smith's size at athleticism at the next level.
At 6-2, 242 he'd have to fit in a "move" tight end role. (His size and speed — 4.6-second 40 — are very similar to Aaron Hernandez's coming out of college.) Smith does, however, have experience blocking effectively from a variety of different positions, and he was one of the best big-play receiving threats at his position last year with a 16.1 yards-per-catch average and 8.2 yards after the catch per completion, according to Pro Football Focus.
Again, so long as there's a tight end on the roster to do some of the dirtier in-line work, Smith could be a good fit as a more dynamic play-maker at the position. NFL.com compared him to Patriots first-rounder Ben Watson.
DAY 2 OPTION: Jace Sternberger, Texas A&M
Sternberger, who has good size (6-4, 250), is another tight end in this class who might need some seasoning before he's a real threat to make any impact in the running game. If you're looking for an athlete who runs good routes and will stress safeties and linebackers down the seam? Sternberger is among the best in the class.
No one had more grabs on deep attempts (20 yards or more) than Sternberger, and he ranks eighth in the class with 2.01 yards per route run, according to PFF. If his frame is able to handle more weight, and if he can develop better habits as a blocker, he could potentially turn into a more versatile threat. But as far as catching the football goes, he should be able to provide some team value in the second or third rounds.
DAY 2 OPTION: Kahale Warring, San Diego State
We sent Warring to the Patriots with the No. 97 overall selection in our second seven-round mock draft of the offseason. Here's what we wrote about a player who played just one year of high school football and had no idea what a tight end was until he got to college because his high school offense didn't use one:
"Warring offers some serious promise . . . He's relatively new to the sport, having played everything from water polo to basketball to tennis in high school and getting just one season on the field before heading off to college. He has the size (6-5, 252) and explosiveness (4.67 40, 122-inch broad jump, 36.5-inch vertical) to warrant consideration at this stage of the draft, though. On tape he's very coordinated, adjusting to inaccurate throws, and showing solid ability to track the football in the air. He's also unafraid to mix it up as a blocker, even if he often finishes reps off-balance. The effort is there. And for someone who still seems to have room to grow as a player, that's something the Patriots would appreciate. They've shown in the past they have no problem taking on projects, whether it's Stephen Neal or Sebastian Vollmer. The question is whether or not Warring is ready to take on a real role [in 2019]."
DAY 2 OPTION: Dawson Knox, Ole Miss
Knox wasn't used as a receiver all that often for the Rebels, but when he was, he was incredibly productive. On a team loaded with receiver talent, he caught the ball only 15 times, yet it's hard to understand why he didn't see the football more. He averaged a ridiculous 18.9 yards per catch.
At 6-4, 254 pounds, Dawson — a walk-on who played quarterback in high school — looks like he could add some bulk to his frame and become an even more impactful run-blocker. He's already more than willing in that area. Knox recently put on a very good performance with his testing at his pro day (with a Patriots scout in attendance), running a 4.57-second 40. That's moving for someone Knox's size.
DAY 3 OPTION: Foster Moreau, LSU
We sent Moreau to the Patriots in the seventh round in our first seven-round mock of the offseason, but he may not last that long after the performance he put together at the combine. At 6-4, 253, he ran a 4.66-second 40, a 36.5-inch vertical and a 4.11-second short-shuttle.
If there are teams out there looking for run-blocking experience, explosive athleticism and strong intangibles (Moreau wore No. 18, which is handed out to the LSU player who has best represented leadership and selflessness), then Moreau could be their guy. Moreau only caught 22 passes last year in LSU's run-heavy offense, averaging 10.1 yards per target and dropping one pass, per PFF.
DAY 3 OPTION: Josh Oliver, San Jose State
This can be dangerous, but let's do it anyway. Go ahead and type Oliver's name into Mockdraftable.com, where prospects are compared by height, weight and their athletic testing numbers. See the fourth name on the list? Familiar? Oliver isn't Rob Gronkowski as a prospect, but when it comes to some of their physical traits there are similarities.
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. He doesn't look like a run-game menace, but he'd certainly be worthy of a Day 3 choice with his potential as a receiver.
DAY 3 OPTION: Isaac Nauta, Georgia
Nauta was considered one of the five or six most intriguing tight end prospects in the class until the combine rolled around. Simply put, his testing numbers were alarming. At 6-3, 244 pounds he'll have to be an athletic mismatch at the next level, yet he ran a 4.91-second 40, jumped 28 inches in the vertical and ran a 7.45-second three-cone. He may be helped in that he looks to be a better athlete on tape, and perhaps he'll end up a value pick if teams read too much into his test numbers.
He only had one drop on 31 catchable targets last season, he averaged 14.3 yards per catch last season, and he ranked ninth among draftable tight ends in yards per route run last season, per PFF. Those are numbers worth considering for a tight end coming out of the SEC, regardless of what his testing says. Would the Patriots, who love Georgia products, be the first to pounce if Nauta is available on the third day of the draft?