Replacing arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history is among the biggest challenges the New England Patriots will face this season, and the process of integrating a new group of tight ends into the offense has begun at training camp over the last week.
The Patriots have undergone quite a few changes at the tight end position since beating the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII back in February. Rob Gronkowski (retirement), Dwayne Allen (released) and Jacob Hollister (traded) all have left the team. Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo, Stephen Anderson, Benjamin Watson and Lance Kendricks all joined the team this offseason. With a lot of new faces, it's going to take time to develop a chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady and get everyone up to speed on the playbook.
"(Rob Gronkowski is) a great player. To replace great players -- it's not like you just pick another one off the tight end tree. You can't just go out back," Brady told reporters after Wednesday's practice at Gillette Stadium. "You got to find guys that come in, want to put the work in and try to contribute. Between the guys we have out here now, which is Ben, Matt, Stephen, Ryan Izzo, Lance, who we just got. Those guys are trying to do everything they can do. They're all new players, so we've got to figure out how to get them up to speed to what our expectations are, the level of competition on a daily basis."
Brady on replacing Gronk: "It's not like you just pick another one off the tight end tree." pic.twitter.com/e2G6f6MIfR— NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSBoston) July 31, 2019
The best place to improve is in practice, and in each session the Patriots pass offense faces what Pro Football Focus recently ranked as the fifth-best secondary in the league. These reps against a talented defense are valuable for the new crop of Patriots tight ends.
"We've got a very good defense this year, those guys are challenging us everyday," Brady said. "It's hard to complete passes on our secondary, and that's just reality. It's actually great work for our offense to see how we measure up against a very good defense."
Watson is the only tight end on the roster with a lot of experience catching passes from Brady. The 38-year-old veteran spent the first six seasons of his career in New England, and he returned to the Patriots in the spring after briefly retiring. Watson will miss the first four games of the regular season due to a failed drug test, so someone will need to emerge as the No. 1 tight end before the team's Week 1 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 8.
LaCosse likely is the favorite to fill that role, but there's still a lot of training camp and four preseason games to go before the tight end depth chart is set for the season opener.
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