James Develin

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: Answers at tight end available in free agency

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: Answers at tight end available in free agency

Editor's Note: Phil Perry will be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots' position groups between now and when the NFL's 2020 free agency period begins, spotlighting the current roster and what names might be available on the market.

Arguably the weakest tight end group in the NFL, the Patriots got little production from the trio of Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo for much of the year — both as receivers and run-blockers. After featuring a Hall of Famer at that position for the previous decade in Rob Gronkowski, it was a steep drop-off in terms of the performance here.

All three options missed time while hurt, and Watson was suspended the first four games of the year. None cracked 200 yards receiving. They combined for two touchdowns. They held the No. 56 (LaCosse), 96 (Watson) and 130 (Izzo) spots among run-blockers at the position in 2019, per Pro Football Focus.

Watson has announced he'll retire, but both Izzo and LaCosse are both on the roster for 2020. Still, this position needs addressing maybe more so than any other on the roster. 

PLAYER-BY-PLAYER LOWDOWN

Matt LaCosse: Signed on Day 1 of free agency last March, LaCosse never seemed to fully get his legs under him in the Patriots offense. He missed the season-opener injured and played just two games before the Patriots bye. He caught six passes in the team's final four games. The Patriots could release him and save over $1 million against the cap with just $150,000 of dead money counting toward their books.

Ryan Izzo: The second-year tight end out of Florida State took a red-shirt year in 2018 and played in six games last season. He was targeted nine times, caught six passes and scored once in Washington. He's under contract through 2021.

Ben Watson: Watson's year got off to a rocky start as he was released before he could be activated off of the suspended list. A week later, he was signed to try to provide the Patriots passing game with a bit of a boost. With LaCosse injured and Izzo the only occasional contributor, the position was in dire need. In Week 11 he caught three passes for 52 yards in a win over the Eagles, which was his highest yardage output of the year. He turned 39 on December 18 and will apparently stay retired after 15 years in the league. 

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James Develin: We'll include Patriots fullbacks in this conversation since those players meet with the tight ends on a daily basis in New England. Develin suffered a neck injury and was placed on injured reserve after just two games. He did remain with the team and served as somewhat of a coaching assistant, serving as a presence on the sidelines on game days and in the locker room during the week. He's under contract for one more season. 

Jakob Johnson: Brought to the Patriots via the International Player Pathway Program, Bill Belichick was very open about the fact that the Patriots would have never taken a chance on Johnson had it not been for the league mandating that each AFC East club take on an international player to serve as an 11th player on their practice squad in 2019. Johnson impressed to the point that the Patriots actually activated him to the roster. He played in four games before suffering a shoulder injury that landed him on IR. He's under contract for 2020.

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES: BIG SWINGS

Hunter Henry: The Patriots may want to dip into free-agency to address their tight end spot. It's a difficult position to grasp for young players for a variety of reasons — the volume in the running and passing games, in particular, can be overwhelming — meaning a veteran might be a better option for a team that has an immediate need like New England.

Henry is arguably the best of the bunch. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder recorded a career-high 652 yards last season on 55 grabs. He's not a game-changer in the running game — PFF ranked him as the league's 73rd best run-blocker at the position last season — but the Patriots need weapons, and Henry might be the best where they need the most help. Would the Patriots be willing to pony up about $9 million per year for him, though?

Austin Hooper: This 6-foot-4, 254-pounder has done a better job of staying healthy (missed only three games the last three seasons) than Henry (missed all of 2018) and he's been more productive in a pass-happy offense. Hooper had 75 catches for 787 yards and six scores last year. The catch? It might cost about $10 million per year to lock him up. Or he may never become available. He's a candidate to be franchised this offseason. Like Henry, Hooper's not moving mountains in the run game (PFF's No. 77 run-blocker), but he's a dynamic receiver in the short-to-intermediate range. 

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES: FLAWED BUT INTRIGUING

Tyler Eifert: He's a seven-year veteran. He's played 59 of a possible 112 games in that time. He's a career Bengal. But the knocks on Eifert's resume should make him incredibly affordable in 2020. And though he played just six games in 2017 and 2018 combined, he bounced back this season to play in all 16, catching 43 passes for 436 yards. 

Eric Ebron: The Colts didn't seem thrilled with the way Ebron's season went. He landed on injured reserve with an ankle issue after catching 31 passes for 375 yards and three scores. After the season, general manager Chris Ballard told reporters the team would be moving on. Ebron is only a season removed from catching 66 passes and 13 touchdowns. If he's healthy, there's no doubt he'd provide the tight end group in New England a talent upgrade.

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Patriots Talk Podcast: Could this formation be a key to success in the postseason?

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Patriots Talk Podcast: Could this formation be a key to success in the postseason?

Only a handful of NFL teams that still use a fullback. And the New England Patriots are one of them.

Bill Belichick arguably values the position more than any head coach in the NFL. He has carried James Develin on the roster full-time since 2013 and did spend part of the 2012 season the team and their practice squad.

Develin has been sidelined for most of this season with a neck injury. But in recent weeks, it finally seems like the Patriots have found a way to replace him after struggling to do so for most of the year.

And being able to use a fullback could come in handy if they want to make a postseason run.

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On the latest episode of Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast, Curran was joined by former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel and they discussed a number of topics. But one of them was what could help the Patriots to find a way to win the in the postseason.

Instead of focusing on a specific player, Cassel was focused on the Patriots running out of 21 personnel, a formation that includes a running back, fullback, and tight end, and (usually) two wide receivers. As Cassel explained, that formation can give defenses some serious trouble.

When you do that, what happens to most defenses - it simplifies their playbook. So they're not as elaborate. And they're not as sophisticated in terms of personnel. They're usually not in nickel or dime. They don't dial up the exotic blitzes and all that stuff because they can't. They're in base defense. They're either in a 3-4, which means three bigs and four linebackers, or they're in a 4-3, four down linemen and three linebackers. It just depends on the type of scheme that they come from.

When you do that, they usually have a much smaller window, or much smaller array, of different defenses they run.

And as Cassel would go onto explain, by forcing defenses to use simpler formations, it's easier to scheme to beat them, especially from the slot and off play-action.

This theory would make sense. One of the reasons that the Patriots offense has sputtered at times this season is that they were operating at less than 100 percent and at times were limited to just one formation.

But with the emergence of converted linebacker Elandon Roberts as a solid fullback, their offense has played much better. And if they can keep operating well out of 21 personnel as Cassel suggests, perhaps that will lead the unit to a better than expected performance in the postseason.

For more on the Patriots' upcoming matchup with the Miami Dolphins, their chances in the postseason, and which receiver needs to step up the most in January, check out the latest episode of the Patriots Talk Podcast, which drops every Tuesday and Thursday as a part of the NBC Sports Boston podcast network.

Stephen Gostkowski's injury could have created difficult choice for the Patriots

Stephen Gostkowski's injury could have created difficult choice for the Patriots

FOXBORO -- Stephen Gostkowski's injury very nearly made an already difficult decision for the Patriots even more difficult.

Per NFL rules, each of the league's 32 clubs is able to return two players off of injured reserve and onto their active roster. (Last year, in New England, the two who returned off of IR were running back Rex Burkhead and Duke Dawson.) 

The Patriots had three players on injured reserve who could potentially return: N'Keal Harry, Isaiah Wynn and James Develin before news of Stephen Gostkowski's injury. 

It was reported by the Boston Globe on Wednesday afternoon that Gostkowski was headed to IR. The Patriots worked out kickers inside Gillette Stadium on Wednesday afternoon.

All four of those players on New England's IR -- not including those placed on IR before the roster cut-down to 53 players, like David Andrews, who aren't eligible to return -- could conceivably make a big impact if they are brought back. All will not be able to practice until they've been out for six weeks. They will be able to play after being out for eight weeks.

Choosing two would have been difficult if Gostkowski made the number four. Would he be more valuable as a returnee than a big-bodied receiver? Or a fullback? Or a left tackle? It all would've depended on his replacement fares.

But according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Gostkowski will have hip surgery and will miss the entire season. He won't be healthy enough to return, so that will make the Patriots' decision easier (although they'd probably like to have Gostkowski's services this year).  

Still, the Patriots choice could be difficult even without Gostkowski. Here are the pros and cons of each one of their three choices. 

WR N'Keal Harry: The rookie wideout was banged-up for much of training camp and couldn't get healthy after suffering a couple of different injuries in Detroit. He'll have plenty of time to get healthy and he should provide the Patriots with an outside-the-numbers, contested-catch presence upon return. Even if he runs a limited route tree, even if he will have missed a month's worth of practices, and even if Brady is reluctant to use young receivers, he should give a thin position group a boost. He can return in Week 9. 

LT Isaiah Wynn: Wynn didn't get very far into his second season as a pro before suffering another long-term injury. He missed all of his rookie season with a torn Achilles and then suffered a foot injury in Miami that sent him to IR. In the short time that Wynn was healthy and no longer recuperating from his Achilles injury, he looked light on his feet and powerful enough to hold up against bull-rushing pass-rushers. If he can get back to that form, bringing him back off of IR would seem to be a no-doubter. Left tackle is one of the most valuable positions on any roster, and while Marshall Newhouse has given the Patriots a good effort there in Wynn's absence, Wynn's return would qualify as an upgrade.

FB James Develin: Develin's presence on the field made a world of difference to the Patriots in 2018. Their 21-personnel (two backs, one tight end) groupings were the team's most efficient both when they elected to run and when they elected to pass during the postseason run that resulted in a sixth Lombardi Trophy. The Patriots weren't as effective with a fullback on the field in the two weeks Develin was healthy enough to play this year, but he was still a major component to the team's running game and special teams units. Dealing with a neck injury, there's no certainty that Develin will be able to return. But even with the running game looking for all the help it can get this season, having the fullback back doesn't at this point seem like it would rise to the top of the list of IR-return options. 

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