Adam Trautman

2020 NFL Draft: Prototypical Patriots fits at tight end

2020 NFL Draft: Prototypical Patriots fits at tight end

We're over a year removed from Rob Gronkowski's retirement announcement, and the Patriots are still looking for someone to grab their starting tight end role by the throat. Is that player in this year's draft class?

While evaluators of all types will tell you this isn't the deepest draft class at that position, there are a few future starters in the mix.  

Let's lay out what the Patriots like at this spot.

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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).

Click here for the prototypical Patriots tight ends in the 2020 NFL Draft.

2020 NFL Draft player rankings: Top 5 tight ends available

2020 NFL Draft player rankings: Top 5 tight ends available

After witnessing the New England Patriots' offensive struggles without Rob Gronkowski in 2019, there's no doubt they have a glaring need at tight end.

That isn't to say there are any Gronks out there to acquire -- they don't grow on trees -- but an upgrade certainly is in order following an abysmal output from the Matt LaCosse/Ryan Izzo/Benjamin Watson trio.

The question is, are there really any major upgrades out there? All of the top free-agent tight ends are off the board, so the Patriots may have to look to the draft. And unless the Patriots can snag one of the top few options, they're probably out of luck as the position isn't all that deep this year.

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Nevertheless, here are the top five tight ends in the 2020 NFL Draft class.

1. Cole Kmet

College: Notre Dame
Class: Junior
2019 stats: 43 receptions, 515 yards, six touchdowns

Kmet is likely to be the first tight end taken following a successful junior season and an impressive combine showing in which he ran a 4.7 40-yard dash. He became a vital part of Notre Dame's passing game in 2019 following a modest offensive output his sophomore year. At 6-foot-6, 262 pounds, Kmet certainly has the size to succeed in the NFL and should be a starter out the gate.

The Patriots might need to make a draft trade to get into position to draft Kmet, a scenario Phil Perry predicted in his most recent 2020 NFL Mock Draft.

Projected Round: Third

2. Adam Trautman

College: Dayton
Class: Senior
2019 stats: 70 receptions, 916 yards, 14 touchdowns

Sure, it was against lesser competition, but Trautman was flat-out dominant in 2019 for the Dayton Flyers. Like Kmet, Trautman is a big target (6-5, 255) who had an impressive combine performance. If it isn't Kmet first off the tight end board, it'll be Trautman.

NBC Sports Boston's own Phil Perry had the Patriots picking Trautman in his seven-round mock draft 1.0:

Trautman (6-5, 255) has some wiggle to him for a big man and posted a ridiculous 6.78 three-cone drill to accompany a strong 34.5-inch vertical at the combine. He's a quarterback-turned-tight-end who dominated FCS competition with the Flyers as a receiver and a blocker. (Though the latter is where he needs polish.) Then he went to the Senior Bowl, saw some of the best players in the country, and acquitted himself well in both areas.

Projected Round: Third

3. Brycen Hopkins

College: Purdue
Class: Redshirt Senior
2019 stats: 61 receptions, 830 yards, seven touchdowns

Hopkins needs to improve in the blocking game, but he should succeed in the NFL as a vertical threat with his speed (4.66 in the 40). The 6-4, 245-pounder is a raw talent -- he didn't play football until high school -- but still enters the 2020 draft as one of the top players available at the position. Drops are an area of concern.

Projected Round: Third or Fourth

4. Hunter Bryant

College: Washington
Class: Junior
2019 stats: 52 receptions, 825 yards, three touchdowns

Bryant was stellar in the passing game with Washington in 2019, particularly with his run-after-catch ability. Although he does have a history of knee injuries and is a bit undersized (6-2, 248), Bryant is still talented enough to be one of the first few tight ends off the board this year.

Projected Round: Third or Fourth

5. Thaddeus Moss

College: LSU
Class: Junior
2019 stats: 47 receptions, 570 yards, four touchdowns

Like father, like son. NFL legend Randy Moss' son Thaddeus has impressive hands that will make him a coveted tight end in this draft. Moss didn't work out at the combine due to a foot injury, but that shouldn't hurt his draft stock too much. He's clearly one of the top pass-catchers in this group.

Projected Round: Third or Fourth

NFL Combine Notebook: Tom Brady's market taking shape despite CBA uncertainty

NFL Combine Notebook: Tom Brady's market taking shape despite CBA uncertainty

INDIANAPOLIS -- NFL front-office types are dealing with uncertainty.

They don't like uncertainty.

Especially this week, at the NFL Scouting Combine, when deals are often struck and team-building plans are typically in the initial stages of execution. 

Those things, by and large, aren't really happening this year. Not yet, at least. Turns out there's a long legal document that's jamming the pipes of league activity. 

The passage of the new proposed collective bargaining agreement appears inevitable, but the CBA itself has not yet been finished off and sent to the entirety of the NFLPA's membership for an electronic vote. That could take days. The voting process itself is expected to take a while. 

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And though the expectation is that a large enough swath of "working-class" players will support the new deal -- the CBA will provide for immediate bumps in minimum salaries and add active roster spots -- nothing is official until it's official. Stars like J.J. Watt and Russell Wilson have publicly denounced the deal, while behind the scenes Aaron Rodgers has been a vocal opponent, I've been told, in an effort to sway union partners.

Meanwhile, in Indy, executives are wondering how to proceed. They don't have a clear picture of the salary cap. They don't know if -- as is the case under the current agreement -- they'll be able to use both the franchise and transition tags to retain players. They don't know if only one tag will be available to them, which would be the case if the new CBA was ratified. 

It's gotten to the point where execs have asked media people as to what their expectations should be. When might the deal get ratified? What might it look like? What will the rules be on tags, voidable years and back-loaded deals? The understanding is that once passed, if passed, the CBA would take effect immediately.

That brings us to the league's quarterback situation, and specifically Tom Brady. The fact that the NFL is embarking on an offseason that could be accompanied by unprecedented quarterback movement further complicates the picture for team decision-makers. 

There will be more money on the table for teams under a new CBA, but if a team is planning to pitch Brady or Philip Rivers or Jameis Winston, if a team wants to make a play for Matthew Stafford via trade, odds are those players are going to become the highest-paid employees wherever they end up. Not only are there important financial questions that would need answering for any team landing a new passer -- tough questions with the CBA situation still up in the air -- but then there are relevant roster-building questions that pop up, too. 

Which players will best augment the new quarterback's skill set? How should the money available be spread around to those complementary pieces? This would be particularly relevant for any team interested in Brady, who's going to want to find himself in a desirable situation personnel-wise. Adding specific players to satisfy a quarterback would come with another set of financial ramifications that aren't easy to map out at the moment. 

It makes sense, then, that there's been as little definitive action as there's been. To me, that helps explain why it's been quiet on the Patriots front when it comes to a potential Brady contract. 

Consider this: Drew Brees, who reportedly had no intention of going to free agency, made it clear he intended to return to the Saints 10 days ago. There are still no details available on his contract. They're not done, as far as we know. The wait continues as the CBA uncertainty lingers. The wait is on across the league, with players at all positions, on all rosters. So the delay is not unique to Brady and the Patriots, and I wouldn't yet characterize the team's patience to this point as indifference.

With that, let's unload the combine notebook with some Patriots-specific rumblings I picked up while bouncing around Indianapolis this week . . . 

BRADY MARKET TAKING SHAPE

It would make sense for any team with questions at quarterback to at least inquire about Brady's interest in joining their franchise. But I've come away from the week looking at Tennessee as a strong candidate -- maybe the strongest -- to land Brady's services.

Publicly, neither coach Mike Vrabel nor general manager Jon Robinson offered convincing defenses of Ryan Tannehill when given the opportunity. Privately, no league people I heard from this week made the case for Tannehill as the surefire plan for the future at quarterback there. Meanwhile, publicly, Vrabel couldn't help but to engage in a spirited back-and-forth when I asked about the possibility of Brady wearing Titans blue. The assumption from people I spoke to in Indy this week is that Vrabel will make a play for his friend and former teammate. If he hasn't already.

CROSS A COUPLE OFF?

It was curious to hear Raiders GM Mike Mayock point out on Tuesday that in any quarterback evaluation handled in Vegas, the Raiders would strongly consider how well a player could run Jon Gruden's offense.

That makes sense, of course, but less so if they want to be in on acquiring Brady. 

The prevailing thought around the league is that wherever Brady ends up, he's going to want to take his system with him. Could he and Gruden -- a West Coast offense guru -- work out some amalgamation of their preferred schemes? Would Gruden be willing to change what he's done for just about the entirety of his career, something he's taken pains to install over the last two seasons, to bring Brady aboard? How tied is Gruden to his offense? Because if the scheme has to be Gruden's, then maybe Vegas and Brady aren't meant to be. 

Another nugget that I found interesting this week: There doesn't seem to be a lot of optimism in Indy that Brady would even consider the Colts as his next team. 

Maybe there's just too much there between the Patriots and Colts, who are definitely in the quarterback market despite having Jacoby Brissett under contract. It was once a great rivalry; Indy helped spark Deflategate (though former Colts GM Ryan Grigson was one of the key figures in that situation, and he's no longer there); and of course Josh McDaniels refused to take the Colts head-coaching job in 2018. Maybe that's why it's hard to envision.

But Indy has a good offensive line, gobs of cap space and some talented weapons. In theory, if Brady wanted to build a "super team," the Colts would be equipped to do it. But Rivers is the veteran passer who's name continued to be linked with the Colts this week as a free-agent fit because of his shared background with some of the staff here. 

ANGLING TO ENTER THE RACE

The Chargers and Bucs are interested in Brady, though people I spoke to questioned the fit at both spots. Organizationally, the Bolts would be a drastic change for someone who helped the Patriots program become what it's become -- something former Chargers offensive lineman Nick Hardwick told us during Super Bowl week. And Tampa, an offense built to chuck it deep with Bruce Arians roaming the sidelines, would be viewed by some as an odd football marriage if it ever came to be.

QUARTERBACK ORDER TBD

Everyone understands that one of the most important developments to come out of the combine will be the medical reports on Tua Tagovailoa's hip. While Joe Burrow is considered the top quarterback in the class, the reports on Tagovailoa could very well impact just how long he has to wait on draft night. If they're good, he could go No. 2 overall. If not . . . 

I spoke to evaluators this week, though, who indicated that Tagovailoa might not be a lock to be the second quarterback taken even if fully cleared. It all depends on who's picking and what type of quarterback they're looking for. All different flavors, so to speak, are available. 

Want the polished passer even if his arm strength isn't exceptional? That's Tagovailoa. Want a big arm and a sturdy NFL frame? You might be more interested in Justin Herbert. Those into big-play potential, those willing to live with some volatility to acquire it, they might like Jordan Love more than Herbert. After Burrow at the top, the quarterback order seems far from settled. 

The Patriots, for their part, will be digging into the film of some of the top quarterbacks more post-combine. 

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TRAUTMAN PEGGED AS A PATRIOTS TYPE

It's not considered a strong draft class at the tight end position this year. There's depth, but it's lacking the types of guaranteed first-round talents that were available last year in Iowa's T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. 

One player though, has already been pegged by rival evaluators I spoke to as a perfect Patriot: Dayton tight end Adam Trautman. 

He obviously isn't coming from an SEC program. He didn't rack up numbers against the best of the best in the country. But he was a high school quarterback, with size to play in-line (6-foot-5, 255 pounds), and he has real athleticism (clocked a 6.78-second three-cone time). 

We highlighted Trautman as a potential Prototypical Patriot prior to the Senior Bowl based on his size alone. Everything he did this week only certified that he'll make that list prior to the draft. He tested well. I'm told he impressed in interviews. And whether it was in meetings or in his media availability period, he made it clear he enjoys the blocking aspect of his job because it allows him to move another man "against his will." 

In a draft class with no consensus top tight end -- many are lighter "move" tight end types -- Trautman's size, athleticism, football IQ and ability to block led one NFL tight ends coach to shake his head and tell me this week, "The Patriots will love him."

ONE TO WATCH

Of course we'll be talking and writing a great deal about quarterbacks and tight ends in this year's draft class for the next two months. But safety is another position that could interest Patriots in the early rounds. One name that has generated a lot of interest already during the pre-draft process is Kyle Dugger of Division II Lenoir-Rhyne in North Carolina. 

Dugger checks every box in terms of his size as a strong safety, measuring in at 6-foot-1, 217 pounds. If he tests the way scouts are expecting him to on Sunday -- he might run like a free safety -- it sounds like he has a chance to work his way into the first-round conversation. Dugger, who returned six punts for touchdowns in college and could fill that role at the next level, generated plenty of buzz in Mobile, Ala. with his week at the Senior Bowl against top-end competition. That buzz certainly followed him to Indy this week.