With Rob Gronkowski stepping away from the team after nine seasons, the New England Patriots must quickly adapt and figure out their tight end position.
It’s no secret that the New England Patriots utilize the tight end position more than most in the NFL.
Maybe a part of that stems from the reality that the team has had the most dominant tight end in the league for the last nine years in Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski was able to do it all for the Patriots, and that kind of production and versatility is frankly irreplaceable.
Gronk’s retirement came as a shock to most people, although it was most damaging and devastating to the New England Patriots franchise, of course. And yet, if you seriously look at the person and what he has been through in terms of myriad injuries and adversity, it quickly becomes more of an understandable decision (a la Andrew Luck’s most recent bombshell retirement announcement, for example).
Due to Gronkowski’s departure, the Patriots missed out on some of the top free agent tight ends that were available in early spring of this year. Jared Cook, Jesse James, Tyler Eifert, Delanie Walker, and Tyler Kroft were all reportedly available at the start of free agency, and yet New England never really stood much of a chance in wooing any of them, largely because they were left waiting for Gronk’s decision.
Instead, Benjamin Watson – who is 38 years old – came out of retirement to join his former team. Watson will be suspended for the first four games of the season due to failing a drug test back in March, which obviously deals a blow to an already-thin depth chart. When he returns to action though, the veteran can provide both stability and reliability at the position down the stretch of the season and into the playoffs (assuming he clears concussion protocol and remains healthy).
Matt LaCosse inked himself a two-year deal with the Patriots as an unrestricted free agent after an intriguing mini-breakout season with the Denver Broncos in 2018. LaCosse previously spent a little more than two seasons with the New York Giants before finishing part of a season with the Broncos.
Here’s what head coach Bill Belichick had to say about LaCosse in the New England offense, per Patriots.com:
“He’s [LaCosse] a young player that has some talent. He’s played in the league and we feel he has some upside. We’ll see how he does in our system.”
While not exactly the most-ringing endorsement, it at least indicates that Belichick believes LaCosse has the talent and ability to make an impact this season in Foxborough. Clearly no one is expecting him to be the second coming of Gronkowski, but if he can build on some of the momentum he established last year with the Broncos, he could help offset some of the lost production at the tight end position.
Elsewhere on the TE depth chart, veteran Lance Kendricks was able to land himself a one year deal with the Pats after stints with the Green Bay Packers and the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams. Unfortunately for Kendricks though (and for New England fans), he too will now be serving a one-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Though it’s not as lengthy as Watson’s punishment, it still comes at an inopportune time for the defending champions.
Former Houston Texan Stephen Anderson was signed to the practice squad last season, and is currently fighting for a spot on the active roster in 2019. With just 12 days left until the opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers though, time is running out for Anderson to make his mark and prove he’s worthy of such a spot.
Second-year player Ryan Izzo and undrafted rookie Andrew Beck are also expected to be part of this mash-up tight end unit. Similar to Anderson, both still have a lot to prove in not a lot of time if they hope to carve out room on New England’s game-day roster. Of some note, Izzo had himself a beautiful catch from Tom Brady during last Thursday’s preseason game against the Carolina Panthers.
Gronk’s sudden retirement leaves more than just a hole on the Patriots from a receiving and blocking perspective. It also represents an unfilled void for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, for Brady, and for the Patriots’ dynamism and unpredictability on offense as a whole. His on-field presence alone was enough to regularly command double-teams and force opposing defenses into accounting for his every whereabout.
For years now, tights ends in Belichick’s system have occupied numerous important roles. They are expected to provide support in both the running and passing game, and to develop both skill sets as best they can. While New England doesn’t employ two tight end sets as often as they did in the days of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots still helped pioneer the popularity of that look around the NFL.
Realistically, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Patriots starting the season with a tight end group that is led by Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse, and Ryan Izzo.
Lance Kendricks could get some playing time in Weeks 2-4 if he sticks on the roster, but his one-game suspension certainly hurts his chances. And while Watson might represent the most-known quantity at the position due to his history and chemistry playing alongside Brady in this system, his four-game suspension also represents a major challenge for his establishment as a focal point and weapon for the Patriots.
Out of everyone, LaCosse seemingly has the most unencumbered path to significant snaps as the starting tight end for New England in 2019.