Curran: What happened to the Patriots tight end factory?

October 21, 2020

Before we get started here, hats off to Michael Onwenu. Sixth-round pick out of Michigan, already a versatile, plug-and-play offensive lineman. He’s grading out as one of the best rookies in the NFL this year.

Justin Herron, God bless him too. Another sixth-round pick ready and reporting for duty as a rookie as well. Kudos.

J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Adam Butler – all you undrafted beasts the Patriots unearthed – just keep doing you. It goes to show, player procurement isn’t all about the draft.

Doesn’t matter how you get to New England, only what you do when you get here.

Good? Good.

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With that out of the way, what the hell at tight end? I mean, what the hell?

Through five games, the position’s accounted for six catches and 82 yards. All of it belongs to Ryan Izzo, a 2018 seventh-round pick.

Rookie third-round picks Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene haven’t been thrown to yet. Keene hasn’t dressed for a game.

To confirm your suspicion, yes, those six catches are the fewest receptions among any tight end group in the league. Carolina has 10 tight end receptions. They are 31st. The Eagles have 47 tight end catches. The Niners – this week’s opponent – have 46. Those teams are 1-2.

In a Tight Spot

Targets for Patriots TE since the start of 2019 (53 in 2019, 11 in 2020), which ranks 32nd in the NFL.
64

I’m old enough to remember when tight end was a focal point of the Patriots offense. The trickle-down effect of having a threat in the seam made everybody better in the passing game – from Brandin Cooks to Danny Amendola to Tom Brady. Not to mention the damage the spot did in the running game as recently as 2018 with Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen.

I’m even old enough to remember that the 2.0 version of the Patriots dynasty was made possible in large part by the drafting of two tight ends a decade ago.

But now, here in New England, the tight end position’s been shut down. It sits idle and looming like a deserted factory, the kind you drive past and sigh, remembering a full parking lot and production-signaling smoke pouring from the chimneys.

Boomtime at tight end is elsewhere. Like San Francisco.

Bill Belichick swooned this week over the magnificence of Niners tight end George Kittle. All the things Kittle does to make that offense hum. Belichick marveled that he’s never seen or coached anyone quite like Kittle.

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Whether that statement was a purpose pitch or hand-to-God truth, Belichick would never say. But if Kittle can make Belichick get that weak-kneed, doesn’t it mean he sees the position can still be an offensive hub and not an afterthought?

You’d think so.

Then we’re back to, “What the hell?”

Why did the Patriots shut down the tight end factory?

Why did they spend a total of three draft picks on tight ends between 2010 and 2019 (fifth-rounder Lee Smith in 2011, sixth-rounder A.J. Derby in 2015, Izzo in 2018) when Aaron Hernandez was out of the NFL by 2012 and it was clear Gronk’s health and availability was a play-to-play proposition?

Consider Kittle.

He was the 146th pick in the 2017 draft. A fifth-rounder from Iowa. The Patriots – who tried to trade Gronk after the 2017 season – definitely had a need at the spot.

And they had plenty of Iowa ties – head coach Kirk Ferentz is one of Belichick’s closest coaching friends. Brian Ferentz, a former Patriots assistant, was the offensive coordinator when Kittle was there. They had to have been aware Kittle could play a little.

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The handy defense against the whole, “Coulda had this guy in the draft…” contention – especially with late-round picks – is, “What about all the other teams that missed on the guy…”

Three counters to that as it relates to Kittle.

First, the Patriots were past due to draft a tight end and Kittle should have been blinking brightly on their radar given how well they know the program.

Second, the Patriots are suddenly just like any other team? There’s no reason to expect Belichick and Nick Caserio to ID and draft at tight end or wideout better than John Lynch?

Third, it’s not like Kittle parachuted into the draft a complete unknown. Here’s Phil Perry on Kittle before that draft.

George Kittle, Iowa, 6-foot-3, 247 pounds: I've mentioned Kittle on just about every platform we have here: mock drafts, podcasts, Boston Sports Tonight. It's a healthy obsession. And there's a reason for it. At this position he's the clear-cut best fit for the Patriots in this class, in my opinion. Part of the reason for that is because he's expected to go in the middle rounds, and that's where the Patriots have picks. But it's mostly because of what he can do on the field. He's more than athletic enough -- 4.52-second 40, 35-inch vertical, 132-inch broad jump -- to create space in opposing secondaries. He was also an impactful run-blocker for the Hawkeyes under head coach Kirk Ferentz (a former assistant to Bill Belichick in Cleveland) and Ferentz's son Brian, who once served as the tight ends coach in New England. The Patriots will know that Kittle's been taught the fundamentals properly. And they'll know that if they get a good recommendation from the Ferentz family, they can count on it.

Let’s not get too lost in the weeds on Kittle, though. Aside from him, there have been plenty of tight ends coming into the league since 2015 the Patriots passed on. It’s something we’ve hammered at. Repeatedly.

Meanwhile, their free agent tight end efforts have gone poof. Jared Cook didn’t want to come in 2019 because he wasn’t sure if Gronk was retiring or not. (He was). Austin Seferian-Jenkins was signed then retired for personal reasons. The estimable Ben Watson didn’t have much left to give in 2019. Jacob Hollister? Martellus Bennett? Scott Chandler? I can keep going but you get the point. It’s not a priority.  

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Or is it?

On Monday, when asked about the lack of production from receivers and tight ends by WEEI’s Lou Merloni, Belichick said, “Overall, we need more production offensively, period,” Belichick said. “We only had 14 first downs (in Sunday’s 18-12 loss to the Denver Broncos). I think we probably had more production from the tight end position than we’ve had all year.”

Izzo had three catches for 38 yards and a fumble. I don’t know if Belichick was praising that level of production or lamenting it.  

So while we all stand here, tapping our foot and checking our watches to see when N’Keal Harry actually arrives, it’s worth noting that things at wideout aren’t really all that bad. At least that spot is still open for business.