Matt LaCosse

How will the Patriots tight end puzzle come together in training camp?

How will the Patriots tight end puzzle come together in training camp?

Leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we'll try to answer one question every day as a way of giving you a better idea of where we'll have our focus trained when practices begin. Today we start at tight end, where Bill Belichick will have his work cut out for him trying to figure out what to do following Rob Gronkowski's retirement. 

Rob Gronkowski is retired. For now. And if you're one to read into Instagram posts — who isn't? — then you might be coming around to the idea that he's going to stay retired for a while.

That means there are no quick-and-easy answers to the questions surrounding the tight end spot at One Patriots Place. 

Austin Seferian-Jenkins is no longer in the mix. Ben Watson will be on the field when training camp begins next week, but he'll be suspended for the first four games of the regular season after violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy. 

It's looking like the starting gig could come down to two players who combined for 24 catches last season. Matt LaCosse had a career-high 24 catches last season with the Broncos. Ryan Izzo, a seventh-round draft pick in 2018, is still waiting for his first regular-season snaps after spending his rookie year on injured reserve.

The Patriots have typically employed tight ends who can do a little bit of everything. That's what made them valuable in New England's offense. That's what made the position so difficult to pick up at times. But whether it was Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, Watson during his first run with the team, Christian Fauria or Daniel Graham . . . Bill Belichick has long had players who can move large humans in the running game and serve as capable (or better) pass-catchers.

Yes, there have been tight ends like Jacob Hollister, Dwayne Allen, Matt Lengel, A.J. Derby, Michael Hoomanawanui, Matt Mulligan, Michael Williams, Aaron Hernandez and Alge Crumpler who've played specific roles within the Patriots offense. But having a do-it-all threat made it easier to change on the fly. It made the offense a little more unpredictable. 

For the first four weeks of the season, it's looking like the Patriots won't have that luxury.

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

This feels like one of those times. LaCosse — who ran with Brady during minicamp alongside other projected offensive starters — may serve as the team's top pass-catching option. Izzo, a hearty blocker at Florida State who showed flashes as a receiver last summer, may end up the top run-blocking option.

That could change, of course. This is why camp matters. 

When the pads come on after a few days of practice, will LaCosse show that he can clear space as an in-line player? He's listed at 6-foot-5, 255 pounds. It's not out of the realm of possibility that he will effectively be throwing his weight around if given the chance. 

What about Izzo? What if he consistently comes down with what's thrown his way? What if his flashes as a receiver are sustained this summer? Could he be a true every-down option . . . at least until Watson is back? The good news for Izzo is that this was a run-heavy offense late last year. If that's the plan once again, then the better blocker in camp may have a path to more playing time.

Andrew Beck, the undrafted rookie tight end out of Texas, looks more like a fullback. He took reps with James Develin and Jakob Johnson throughout minicamp and could be valuable insurance for Develin in a system that values its lead blockers out of the backfield. 

Stephen Anderson, meanwhile, looks like a "move" tight end only who could face an uphill battle at a roster spot. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, he's listed as having almost the same measurements as rookie receiver N'Keal Harry at this year's NFL Scouting Combine (6-2.5, 228 pounds).

The reality is, however the Patriots attempt to replace Gronkowski, there will be no replacing him. They'll need to get more production from their backs and their receivers — particularly when all options are covered and Brady needs to be bailed out — in order to help make up for what's been lost in the passing game. They may have to turn to an extra offensive lineman at times for a reasonable facsimile of what Gronkowski provided as a blocker.

Someone is going to have to man the position, though. And while Belichick's top two options for the first month of the season are seriously lacking in-game experience, they'll have an opportunity to prove they belong over the course of the next month.

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What's the path for Patriots tight end Michael Roberts to make an impact?

What's the path for Patriots tight end Michael Roberts to make an impact?

It's going to be hard for anyone in the Patriots tight end room to feel comfortable any time soon. At the moment, the team is simply devoid of players with the kind of talent that would warrant their names being scribbled on the 53-man roster in ink.

That means there will be tinkering, and we know Bill Belichick isn't averse to tinkering year-round. He continued to shape-shift his tight end group on Thursday by trading for Lions tight end Michael Roberts, sending Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn a conditional seventh-rounder for 2020 in return. 

Does acquiring Roberts give the Patriots a clearer plan in terms of how they'll replace Rob Gronkowski? Nope. But it does provide the group with more depth as well as more competition for training camp next month. 

Gauging the overall effectiveness of the tight end position during Patriots minicamp was a bit of a fool's errand. Pads weren't involved. Blocking, other than a few periods focused on run-game assignments, was essentially an afterthought. 

It was Matt LaCosse, who caught a career-high 24 passes last season, who took snaps with Tom Brady and other projected starters late in the week of mandatory spring practices. Ben Watson looked comfortable in the passing game, but the 38-year-old will be suspended for the first four games of the regular season. Ryan Izzo was quiet as a receiver and heard it from coaches after apparently bungling a snap during a goal-line run-game period. Stephen Anderson was smooth but appears to be more receiver than true tight end, checking in at 230 pounds -- two more pounds than rookie receiver N'Keal Harry weighed at this year's combine. Undrafted rookie Andrew Beck worked out with the fullbacks, and while he could have a valuable role in backing up James Develin, he doesn't look like he'll factor into the tight end mix. 

So where does Roberts fit in? Why go after him? Of all the buzz we've heard about how the Patriots might go about replacing Gronkowski, Brady may have had the best explanation immediately after the team's final minicamp practice. 

"That’s got to be a position of strength even if it’s not one player but multiple players doing different roles," Brady said. "There were times in my career before that where we had similar approaches. No one’s going to make any excuses for our offense. We’re going to do everything we can to be the best we can be, score every time we touch the ball, and the tight end position’s a big part of our offense. Those guys are going to have to do a great job for us."

There is no tight end on the Patriots roster who can take the field in every situation and, as Gronkowski did, assert himself as among the best in the league at whatever it is he's called to do on a given snap. But as they try to piece it together with "multiple players doing different roles," we can try to make more sense of the Roberts acquisition beyond calling it depth.

It appears as though Roberts will be an option as a true "Y" tight end in the Patriots offense. At 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, he becomes the heaviest tight end on the roster, and could be a fit as a true in-line player. In his two years with the Lions, according to Pro Football Focus, of his 379 total snaps, 243 (64 percent) came as a blocker. 

Though Roberts reeled in 45 catches, including 16 touchdowns, for 533 yards as a senior at Toledo in 2016, his frame, his length (33-inch arms) and his hand size (11.5-inch hands) make him ideally suited to take on blocking duties. He had 13 catches for 146 yards in his two seasons in Detroit. 

What does this mean for the rest of the position group in New England? It could put a player like Izzo on notice. When he was drafted, the seventh-rounder out of Florida State was described as an "on-the-line-of-scrimmage player, very tough" by director of player personnel Nick Caserio. If his role for the Patriots is going to be tied to his ability to create space in the running game, perhaps Roberts will push him in camp with one of the two winning out as the top options to fill the blocking role previously filled by Dwayne Allen.

It's hard to say with much certainty what Roberts will do for the Patriots until he's able to practice with his new team, but even if he's a blocking specialist, that would carry plenty of value for the Patriots as they piece together a tight end room that will have to feature — at least early on — some specialist types now that their do-it-all option is retired.

Check out Phil Perry's post-minicamp 53-man roster projection>>>>

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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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