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.
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