Thomas Dimitroff

Patriots have backed themselves into a corner at tight end

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Patriots have backed themselves into a corner at tight end

Forty tight ends have been drafted since 2016.

The Patriots have taken one – Ryan Izzo from Florida State with the 250th overall pick last year. He was the 15th tight end drafted.

Even with the sand running out of Rob Gronkowski’s career hourglass, the Patriots spent their picks on three defensive backs (including the departed Cyrus Jones in the second round of 2016), four linebackers from whom they’ve gotten a total of 47 games played (44 from Elandon Roberts) and three offensive tackles — none of whom have played a regular-season snap.

Hey, but a lot of those guys got hurt! Indeed they did. Productive careers may still await Isaiah Wynn, Duke Dawson, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Christian Sam. Godspeed Antonio Garcia. But the point is, the Patriots have been fiddling around at other spots while the tight end position burns.

Seven of the drafted tight ends last year had 20 or more catches, and four had more than 30, led by the Jets' Chris Herndon and Carolina’s Ian Thomas. They were both fourth-round picks. The 2017 crop included three first-rounders, Evan Engram of the Giants and Tampa’s O.J. Howard. They have 257 receptions between them. The most productive pass-catching tight end from that draft is George Kittle, a fifth-rounder from Iowa who’s made 131 catches for 1,892 yards.

In 2016, there were no first-round tight ends but San Diego’s Hunter Henry (81 catches, 1,057 yards in 2016 and ’17) and Atlanta’s Austin Hooper (139 catches, 1,457 yards in three years) were both third-round picks.

There have been many tight ends talented enough to produce at the NFL level that New England passed on drafting.

Meanwhile, the non-Gronk production at tight end from Jacob Hollister, Dwayne Allen and Martellus Bennett over the past three seasons combined is 72 catches for 856 yards. And Bennett contributed 55 of the catches and 701 of the yards.

Amid this crisis, the Patriots have struggled to three Super Bowls appearances, winning only two. Yeah, yeah, yeah, fine.

And the team has added 26-year-old Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, who is six feet, five inches and 262 pounds of untapped potential after catching passes from the likes of Blake Bortles, Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick (the bad Jets version).

It’s time for them to dive headlong into the position and Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff said on Quick Slants the Podcast this week that – even though they’ve waited – this is a very good time to do it.

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After discussing the deep but seemingly not elite wide receiver crop, Dimitroff said, “When we’re talking about the tight ends, that’s kinda flipped. Usually tight ends are going to be in that spot where they are seconds and thirds but there are a number of (good) tight ends.

“I think there will be potentially two in the first round and then there’s another group that will go in the second round,” he added. “That’s never the way it used to be. You used to be able to find a tight end in the third round, so this is a good group.”

The consensus top two are T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant from Iowa. We’ve done much reporting on them. There’s also Irv Smith from Alabama and Jace Sternberger from Texas A&M then Kahale Warring and Dawson Knox from San Diego State and Ole Miss respectively.

The Patriots are going to find a tight end. Maybe more than one. And they will get Izzo back and maybe he makes strides. Meanwhile, Hollister is a good pass-catcher; he just hasn’t stayed healthy enough to make an impact and gain trust.

But the fact remains it hasn’t been a priority position in the draft for New England. And that’s not just in the past three seasons, when a lot of good tight ends came into the league, but going back to 2014 which is the draft following the arrest and release of Aaron Hernandez. Izzo and A.J. Derby are the only tight ends they’ve drafted since 2014.

Bennett, Allen and Scott Chandler are the only veteran tight ends who’ve come in and caught passes.  

Now they need to nail it.

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Dimitroff: Ignoring Belichick's advice on Julio Jones trade a turning point

Dimitroff: Ignoring Belichick's advice on Julio Jones trade a turning point

HOUSTON -- When Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff was contemplating trading five picks -- including two first-rounders and a second -- to move up and take Julio Jones in 2011, his former boss advised against it. 

“Thomas, I’m just telling you as a friend,” Belichick said, as documented in Michael Holley’s “War Room” book. “I wouldn’t do it.”

So if it didn’t already seem like a ballsy move for Dimitroff to part with all those picks already, imagine how ballsy it must have felt after being told by a Hall of Fame team-builder that it was a bad idea. 

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“[I have a] great deal of respect for Bill,” Dimitroff said Monday night. “At the end of that conversation, when I thought to myself I’d hit a crossroads, three years into the league that I was not necessarily going the same direction that he was advising. I thought, ‘I guess I’ve really kind of grown up here,’ because that’s not an easy thing to do, is listen to someone as football intelligent and rounded as Bill [and go against it]. So that was a really interesting point in my career.”

Thanks to Cleveland’s incompetence with the picks, the trade has proven to be a complete slam-dunk for Atlanta, who boasted the No. 1 offense in the NFL this season en route to a chance to play for the city’s first Super Bowl title. 

It’s hard to imagine Bill Belichick is a guy who likes to admit when he’s wrong. He was in this case not only because Jones became a star, but because Jonathan Baldwin, whom Holley noted Belichick thought was just as good if not better, didn’t prove to be much of an NFL player at all. 

So… has Belichick ever brought up that conversation since? 

“No, he has not,” Dimitroff said. “We’ve not ever talked about it. He knows that we have some good speed and talent on our team. I’ll let him answer those questions, for sure.” 

Dimitroff suggesting that Belichick would answer those questions further underscores that he really has been gone from New England for a long time. 

Belichick wouldn't make a trade like the Julio Jones one; what if he did?

Belichick wouldn't make a trade like the Julio Jones one; what if he did?

This week, an excerpt from Michael Holley’s “War Room” resurfaced, as it ties two of the biggest names in Super Bowl LI together in a fascinating way. 

With the Falcons prepared to move up 21 slots in 2011 by trading two first-round picks, a second and two fourths across two drafts in order to select Julio Jones, Bill Belichick told former New England colleague and then/current Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff it was a bad idea. 

“Thomas, I’m just telling you as a friend,” Belichick said. “I wouldn’t do it.” 

Holley detailed that the Pats weren’t as blown away by Jones as other teams were, but he also noted that the Pats didn’t think taking a receiver that high provided great value considering the depth of that position in that draft class. Belichick thought Jonathan Baldwin, in Holley’s words, was "just as good if not better than Jones.” Whoops. 

(Tom E. Curran also shared a story about Belichick’s thoughts on drafting receivers high from 2001. During that season, Curran asked Belichick why he hadn’t opted to get Drew Bledsoe a receiver in the previous draft when David Terrell was on the board at No. 6. Belichick responded by asking Curran who the best rookie receiver was at the time and answering it himself: Chris Chambers, a late second-round pick. As Belichick saw it, it was harder to find an elite defensive lineman -- such as Richard Seymour, whom the Pats took with the pick -- at the top of the draft than a potentially elite receiver.) 

Right now (and especially considering how poorly the Browns spent those picks), Dimitroff’s gutsy trade is looking pretty smart, but was Belichick warranted in advising against it? He had teams far more stacked than the 2010 Falcons leading up to that point, yet he didn’t throw all his picks at one player, receiver or otherwise. 

What if he did? Who would have been where? Who would have won what? Admittedly, these are major hypotheticals that take giant steps into Nonsense Town. There’s no saying such trades could have even been made, but hey, this is a 13-day stretch without games. Plus, you read mock drafts. 

Using the pieces of that trade -- a late first-round pick, a second-round pick, a first the next year and fourths in two years -- here’s a look at which Patriots would have never ended up in New England had the Pats ever made a splash as big as the Falcons did in 2011. 

2004: Larry Fitzgerald, third overall

If the Pats traded the first of their two late firsts in 2004 (No. 21), they would have missed out on Vince Wilfork, who played a big role in two Super Bowl championships. The trickle-down effect would have been interesting as well, as having Larry Fitzgerald in 2006 might have meant another Super Bowl and, in turn, a lack of the receiver-heavy offseason that followed in which they added Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth. 

But wait! That’s not it. If the Pats moved those picks, they also wouldn’t have gotten Logan Mankins in the first round the next year. They also spent a 2005 fourth-rounder on James Sanders, who proved to be a player. 

2005: Braylon Edwards, third overall

Man, thank goodness they didn’t have designs on anything like that. If the Pats traded a Jones-like haul to move up and take Edwards, it would have meant no Mankins, Sanders, Laurence Maroney (kind of a blessing) or Stephen Gostkowski. The Patriots ended up trading their second-rounder in 2005, but they drafted Ellis Hobbs with one of the picks they got back from the Ravens. 

And if there’s confusion as to why they’d be going for high-end wide receivers in these make-believe scenarios given that they had Deion Branch and David Givens, the Falcons had Roddy White in his prime. Tony Gonzalez wasn't a bad target either. Again, you read mock drafts. Ease up. 

2007: Calvin Johnson, second overall/LaRon Landry, sixth overall

This is roundabout as hell, but it would mean either no Brandon Meriweather (whom the Pats chose 24th that year) or no Jerod Mayo (the Pats traded the 28th pick to the 49ers for a 2008 first, which ended up being seventh overall; they moved down to take Mayo at No. 10). That 2008 draft in which they drafted Mayo also had the Spygate punishment, so they didn’t have the 31st overall pick. 

The Pats also didn’t have picks in the second or fourth rounds that year. They traded their second and a seventh for some guy named Welker. Their fourth went to Oakland for Moss. In the fourth round of the 2008 draft, they took Jonathan Wilhite.