The tight end position in New England has been one of intense focus over the past decade. Rob Gronkowski, when healthy, was arguably the best tight end of all-time during his time with the Patriots. Since he retired following New England’s Super Bowl win over the Los Angeles Rams, the Patriots tight end room has been one of the worst in the league.
Going from a legend to Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo has hurt the offense’s production in both the run and passing game. New England drafted two tight ends in the 2020 NFL Draft hoping to solve the position moving forward, but failed to get basically any production from them as rookies.
Improving the tight end position will be one of the focuses of the offseason for head coach Bill Belichick.
Patriot Cap Casualties
The Patriots starter at tight end during the majority of the 2019 season, Matt LaCosse opted out of last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With one year remaining on his contract, LaCosse has yet to play at a level that warrants future consideration. On the heels of his 2019 season, the Patriots decided to draft both Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. With a minimal dead cap hit if released or traded, New England will likely move on from LaCosse as long as they trust the development of their younger players at the position.
Free Agent TE Fits
With plenty of cap space and a glaring hole at the starting tight end spot, New England should be in play to add one of the major players in free agency. There seems to be an obvious hierarchy among them, with Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith both plus starters entering their prime. Beyond those two, Gerald Everett has starter upside but the rest of the unrestricted free agent class at the position is full of complimentary options with various ceilings.
Hunter Henry (26 years old – 6’5 250 – 60 receptions, 613 yards, 4 TD’s in 2020, 14 games)
Hunter Henry is the crown jewel among the free agent tight ends, and a player that Bill Belichick has raved about in the past. There is little doubt that New England will be interested in signing him, as Belichick has mentioned that he’s had his eye on Henry ever since he was in high school. Henry’s production to this point in his career warrants a healthy contract for multiple years, so he should have plenty of suitors. New England will need to offer a multi-year contract and likely address the quarterback position prior to the offer in order to generate enough interest from Henry. If they’re able to acquire his services, it solves the starting tight end position for multiple seasons moving forward with a top-10 tight end in the NFL.
Jonnu Smith (26 years old – 6’3 248 – 41 receptions, 448 yards, 8 TD’s in 2020)
If Bill Belichick has raved about Hunter Henry the most among opposing tight endsL, then Jonnu Smith probably comes in as a close second. Belichick has noted that Smith is arguably the best tight end in the entire league after the catch, and a player that is versatile in their alignment. His receptions, yards, and touchdowns have all increased in each season that he’s been in the NFL, topping out at 41 receptions for 8 receiving touchdowns in 2020. Smith is an ascending player that is already an above average tight end throughout the league, and would be a long-term solution at the position for the Patriots.
Gerald Everett (27 years old – 6’3 240 – 41 receptions, 417 yards, 1 TD in 2020)
A former 2nd round draft pick, Gerald Everett has played a complementary role for the Los Angeles Rams since entering the NFL. Similar to Jonnu Smith, his receptions and receiving yards have both increased with each season he’s played so far. He’s a talented pass catcher and has the power necessary to break tackles after the catch, though he can be inconsistent as a run blocker. Everett has starter upside moving forward, but has fit best as a part of a 1-2 punch at the position to this point in his career.
Ross Dwelley (26 years old – 6’5 235 – 19 receptions, 245 yards, 1 TD in 2020)
San Francisco currently employs one of the best tight ends in the league in George Kittle, but their #2 at the position has flashed in limited opportunities. Dwelley was originally an undrafted free agent and spent time on the 49ers practice squad, started in place of Kittle due to injury in 2019, and expanded his role even further last season. In the last 12 games that he’s started, Dwelley has produced 28 receptions for 291 yards and 2 touchdowns on 38 targets.
Tyler Eifert (31 years old – 6’6 255 – 36 receptions, 349 yards, 2 TD’s in 2020)
It’s believed that the Jacksonville Jaguars will decline the team option on Tyler Eifert, making him a free agent. Back in 2015, Eifert seemed on his way to becoming one of the best tight ends in the league. He was plagued by injuries for three years after that, but has managed to remain mostly healthy over the past two seasons. Unfortunately, the injuries have taken the toll on Eifert and his athleticism, but he’s still a solid option as a #2 tight end. The veteran could come to Foxboro on a cheap and short-term deal.
Kyle Rudolph (31 years old – 6’6 265 – 28 receptions, 334 yards, 1 TD in 2020, 12 games)
Recently released by the Minnesota Vikings after 10 seasons, Kyle Rudolph figures to have a decent free agency market. His fit in New England could make sense as he’s still playing at a fringe-starter level and could help guide the young tight ends on the roster. However, Rudolph’s play has declined in recent years and he ended last season on the injured reserve. He would be a low ceiling one-year stopgap signing, but an investment that could pay off if Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene develop with his guidance.
Other potential veterans: Tyler Kroft, Dale Arnold, Jared Cook, Jacob Hollister, Trey Burton
Jordan Reed (31 years old – 6’2 242 – 26 receptions, 231 yards, 4 TD’s in 2020, 10 games)
New England native Jordan Reed ahs long been one of the better athletes at the tight end position in the NFL, constantly producing when he’s on the field. His career 16-game average is 76 receptions for 768 yards and 6 touchdowns. Unfortunately for Reed, he’s hasn’t been able to play all 16 games in any of his seven professional seasons. He offers a high ceiling, but Bill Belichick values availability which may cause a disinterest in Reed.
Robert Tonyan (27 years old – 6’5 250 – 52 receptions, 586 yards, 11 TD’s in 2020)
Robert Tonyan had a breakout season in 2020, going from just 10 receptions the year before to 11 receiving touchdowns. Part of that production was clearly due to opportunity in Matt LaFluer’s offensive system and playing with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, but it was an impressive performance nonetheless. Tonyan is a restricted free agent, meaning he’s likely to get a tender placed on him by the Packers that strongly suggests he’ll be returning to Green Bay.
Everyone in New England would seemingly embrace the idea that Rob Gronkowski returns to the Patriots. However, it’s become clear that Gronk wants to play with Tom Brady and nobody else at quarterback. On top of that, the relationship between him and the organization may have tarnished a bit after he had to ask them to be traded last offseason.
Potential Cap Casualties
Zach Ertz (30 years old – 6’5 250 – 36 receptions, 335 yards, 1 TD in 2020, 11 games)
Zach Ertz saw his production slip in 2020 and will be 30 years-old while owed considerable money, making him a potential cap causality for the rebuilding Philadelphia Eagles. Ertz could be a trade target for a tight end or veteran-needy team, and the Patriots are both. If the Eagles aren’t able to find the right trade partner or decide to do Ertz a favor and allow him to see the open market, his potential impact on the Patriots could be significant.
Jimmy Graham (34 years old – 6’7 265 – 50 receptions, 456 yards, 8 TD’s in 2020)
One of the most productive pass catching tight ends in the history of the game, Jimmy Graham continued to be a redzone threat for the Chicago Bears last season. With his size and strength, Graham can still be effective as long as he’s not consistently relied upon to be a force in the running game. New England could get solid receiving production and add a veteran presence to their tight end room if the Bears decide to save $7 million by releasing Graham.
David Njoku (25 years old – 6’4 246 – 19 receptions, 213 yards, 2 TD’s in 2020, 13 games)
The only potential cap causality that offers a long-term starter upside, David Njoku’s production hasn’t matched his talent to this point in his NFL career. He seemed to be breaking out as a 22 year-old second-year player, catching 56 passes for 639 yards. Since then, he has struggled to remain on the field and Cleveland has improved the other tight ends on the roster, cutting into his playing time. Njoku asked for a trade at one point last season.
Njoku is under contract through the 5th year team option, which is relatively expensive but non-guaranteed. Cleveland may opt to use Njoku as a trade piece, and New England should be interested in the value of the athletic specimen.