Patriots

Tom Brady has high expectations for tight ends in Rob Gronkowski's absence

Tom Brady has high expectations for tight ends in Rob Gronkowski's absence

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady knows things are going to be different. Yet at the same time, he's been through this before. 

Playing without Rob Gronkowski occasionally was part of life for the Patriots over the course of the last decade. But this year, now that Gronkowski has declared himself retired, they go into the season without the prospect of having the all-world tight end for at least some percentage of the year. That hasn't been the case since before Gronkowski was drafted in 2010. 

"It's the first time in a long time," Brady said of preparing for a season without Gronkowski. "He was such a great player for our team. I think like any season, things are different, and we're gonna have to adjust differently."

The question is, how will Brady and Josh McDaniels adjust without a player who -- even when he was banged up, as he was for much of last season's championship run -- remained the team's go-to option in the passing game and one of its most dominant run-blockers until he called it quits.

The 2019 Patriots appear to be a group that will once again lean on its running game, with five backs looking like locks for the roster, a fullback, and a mostly-veteran offensive line that has proven it can clear space in critical situations. They also look like a team that has some promising players in the passing game with first-round pick N'Keal Harry and intriguing free-agent pickup Maurice Harris joining the likes of Julian Edelman and Phillip Dorsett. 

But at tight end there is no one who looks like he will even sniff replacing the threats that Gronkowski provided on a snap-to-snap basis. Matt LaCosse looks like a good bet to be the team's primary receiving tight end early in the season with Ben Watson suspended. Rookie Ryan Izzo had a quiet week of minicamp but may be able to turn a few more heads when the pads come on for training camp as blocking is his specialty. 

Is there a true dual threat, though, who can make the Patriots an unpredictable attack every time they get to the line of scrimmage? That remains to be seen.

"Teams are gonna play us differently without him," Brady said. "We've seen it when he's been on the team so the other guys are getting up to speed. Matt's done a good job. Ben's done a good job. Stephen Anderson has done a good job. 

"That's gotta be a position of strength, even if it's not one player but multiple players doing different roles. There was times in my career before that where we've had similar approaches." 

The Patriots have typically had more invested at the position during Brady's career. He's right in that, when injuries struck, the offense had to piece together the tight end spot at times. But during Brady's career he's worked extensively with first-round pick Daniel Graham, first-round pick Benjamin Watson, second-round pick Rob Gronkowski, fourth-round pick Aaron Hernandez and second-round pick Martellus Bennett. 

LaCosse was undrafted in 2015 and had his best season (24 catches) last year. Izzo was a seventh-rounder in 2018. Anderson began his Patriots tenure last year on their practice squad. Watson, who could end up being the No. 1 option following his suspension, is going to be 39 years old in December. 

"He's got one [child] older than me," Brady said of Watson. "He's got 14 years of marriage on me, too. He's a great guy, he's been a great player in this league. You watch him play out here still and he's just got great ability. He's had great years recently, and that's what everyone expects. He's excited to be here and I've always loved being his teammate. It's going to be a good year for him."

This is as talent-strapped as the Patriots have been going into a season at the tight end position in some time, but Brady didn't sound like a guy willing to lower the bar for that group as they broke minicamp on Thursday.

"No one's gonna make any excuses for our offense," he said. "We're gonna do everything we can to be the best we can be, score every time we touch the ball. The tight end position is a big part of our offense and those guys are going to have to do a great job for us."

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Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

As much as we'd love to talk football, it has taken a back seat to the conversations that need to be had about George Floyd's murder and the racial injustices that remain prevalent in the United States.

The "Black Lives Matter" movement has spread across the country with protests advocating for justice and racial equality. It has impacted the world of sports, with countless athletes using their platforms to let their voices be heard. NFL players even sent a strong message to the league with a video stating what they wanted to hear it say regarding the oppression of African Americans.

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On a brand new episode of the Next Pats Podcast, New England Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater joined Phil Perry to discuss the state of the nation.

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Slater covered a variety of important topics in the episode. But one that particularly stood out was his explanation of how if the country operated like an NFL locker room, it would be a more inclusive place.

"It is a very unique place. A locker room setting -- you know, if our country operated and moved like a locker room, man it would be a beautiful thing," Slater said. "I'm not saying it's perfect, I'm not saying we've got it all figured out, but what a unique space where people from all different walks of life, different belief systems and things of that nature to work toward a common goal.

"And there's automatic respect that comes with the fact that you have a jersey and a helmet, and you're one of us. So I'm appreciative of that and I think now is a time for us to maybe forge those bonds even deeper. Guys that maybe hear personal stories and maybe experience this from their teammates have a different appreciation for why that guy is the way he is, why he does the things that he does. And I think ultimately that's going to lead to deeper and more fruitful relationships."

If anyone knows what a healthy, inclusive locker room environment looks like, it's Slater. The 34-year-old has been a captain for the Patriots for nearly a decade and has been an admirable leader throughout his stellar NFL career.

Slater also discussed how head coach Bill Belichick has been involved in the team's discussions about recent events, his experiences living as a black man in America, and much more.

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Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

What if? What if Rob Gronkowski had announced his retirement just a few days sooner, allowing the Patriots to make a legitimate play for free agent Jared Cook? 

By the time the man who is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history decided to hang 'em up (briefly), Cook was already making plans to join the Saints. He ended up eighth among tight ends with 705 receiving yards and second with nine touchdowns.

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Meanwhile the Patriots were left to piece together that spot with the likes of Matt LaCosse, Ben Watson and Ryan Izzo.

Reluctant to invest in young players at the position since taking Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010 — since then they'd only drafted Izzo (2018, seventh round), Lee Smith (2011, fifth round) and A.J. Derby (2015, sixth round) — the Patriots had arguably the least-productive tight end group in the NFL last season: 37 catches for 419 yards and two touchdowns.

They've attempted to remedy that situation. In this year's draft, they traded up to land two intriguing talents in the third round.

UCLA's Devin Asiasi is a do-it-all player with the size to move people on the line of scrimmage and the body control to draw comparisons to some of the game's elites at that position. Dalton Keene is an athletic option with experience playing out of the backfield at Virginia Tech who could be the key to unlocking snap-to-snap unpredictability for Josh McDaniels' personnel packages.

Do they enter the equation as the immediate No. 1 and 2 options there? Let's reset the depth chart.

LOCK ‘EM IN

Asiasi. Keene. That's it. Those are the locks. Given the output, it should come as no surprise that there's not a player from last year's roster who comes into this season guaranteed to have a regular-season role. 

ON THE BUBBLE

LaCosse makes sense here. He could potentially end up on the roster as a 2020 version of Alge Crumpler — a veteran who can help guide two promising rookies — because his experience level dwarfs that of others on the depth chart.

However, his experience level isn't exactly overwhelming (33 career games). If he can't stay healthy, as was the case last season, or can't win a job, he'd save the Patriots $1.3 million on the salary cap if released in camp.

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LONG SHOTS

Izzo will have to open eyes in camp or become a special teams staple in order to have a chance to make an impact. Though he showed flashes of being a capable receiver last season, that part of his game was lacking consistency. As a blocker? It was there that he was thought to be a potential contributor when drafted out of Florida State two years ago. But according to Pro Football Focus, his 44.9 run-blocking grade was second-lowest among all players at the position in 2019.

Undrafted rookies Jake Burt from Boston College and Rashod Berry from Ohio State also have to be considered in this category. Burt looks like an in-line option at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds. Berry actually played both on the defensive line and at tight end as a senior. He finished his career with 17 receptions. 

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

In what was considered a tight end class short on game-changing talent, Asiasi might've been the most gifted. Notre Dame's Cole Kmet was the first tight end taken in the draft, going off the board in the second round as the "safest" of this year's tight end crop, according to several evaluators. But when it comes to physical ability? Asiasi can "do it all," one tight ends coach told me.

Some questions about Asiasi's makeup lingered into draft weekend, helping him stay undrafted through almost three full rounds, but the Patriots may have found themselves a steal if Asiasi can make good on his on-the-field promise. Asiasi's trainer Dave Spitz, who has also worked with Browns tight end Austin Hooper and Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, spoke to NBC Sports Boston earlier this offseason.

"He has the catch radius of Austin," Spitz said. "He has the body control and awareness of Zach. And he, I think, has more bend, more wiggle, than both of them. He's a beautiful combination."

X-FACTOR

Asiasi might be the most talented addition the Patriots have made at this position in years, but Keene's versatility makes him an interesting queen-on-the-chess-board piece for Bill Belichick and McDaniels. He has enough size (6-foot-4, 253 pounds) to play in-line as a "Y" tight end. He has the movement skills to serve as more of an "F" option. He's played in the backfield before. He's served as a lead-blocker like a fullback. There are a variety of ways in which he can be deployed.

Why does that matter? Perhaps the Patriots want to use their 12-personnel package with one back and two tight ends. Perhaps, because tight ends are oftentimes glorified receivers these days, a defense will respond to that two-tight end set by matching it with an extra safety instead of a linebacker. If that's the case, Keene could flex in as a fullback and the Patriots could run a 21-personnel look at a lighter defense for an advantage. If the defense keeps linebackers on the field to check Asiasi and/or Keene, the Patriots could use them in the passing game where their athleticism should give them an advantage over a traditional second-level defender. Options.

That's what Keene provides, making him an X-factor in the truest sense if he can handle a wide range of alignments and responsibilities early in his career.