Why Tight End Is the New England Patriots' Biggest Draft Need

Sean KeaneCorrespondent IFebruary 11, 2014

FILE - In this Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, file photo, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is carted off the field after getting injured in the third quarter of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns in Foxborough, Mass. Gronkowski's season ended abruptly Sunday with a knee injury when he took a low hit from Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward. No penalty was called.  (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
Steven Senne/Associated Press

The New England Patriots need to prioritize several areas of need this offseason. Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib and the team’s leading receiver, Julian Edelman, are both free agents and there are other big names on the market, too. If history has taught us anything, though, it’s that Bill Belichick prefers to build through the draft, which is fantastic news considering the Patriots’ greatest position of need—tight end—is incredibly deep in this year’s class.

As recently as a few months ago, tight end was one of the Patriots’ biggest strengths. Rob Gronkowski was regaining his form as perhaps the NFL’s most imposing offensive presence, and short of a bear hug and full-on WWE-style takedown, nothing could stop him.

Steven Senne/Associated Press

Oh, and a direct hit to the knee. That stopped him, too.

When Gronk suffered a torn ACL at the hands of Cleveland safety T.J. Ward, it didn’t just cripple New England’s 2013-14 title chances, it left the Patriots with a gaping hole in their roster and serious questions surrounding their long-term viability at the tight end position.

According to Spotrac.com, the Patriots will have roughly $13.9 million sunk into the position in 2014, yet if the season started today they’d be trotting out D.J. Williams—he of nine career receptions— as their starting, and only able-bodied, tight end.

Talk about a poor return on your investment.

Former Patriot Aaron Hernandez accounts for $7.5 million of that salary-cap hit, an astounding figure for a man who—barring a Longest Yard-style prison career—will never play football again.

The Patriots are certainly in a pickle, but they gambled on two players with questionable medical and personal backgrounds and now it’s time to pay the piper. As quarterback Tom Brady said at his postgame press conference (per Patriots.com via The Boston Globe) following Gronkowski’s devastating knee injury, “Nobody feels sorry for the Patriots.”

That’s fine. The Patriots don’t need pity; they need production and healthy bodies.

The problem, though, is that with just over $6 million in cap space , as estimated by Spotrac.com and so much money already invested in the position, they can’t afford to splurge on free agents or bring in a high-profile insurance policy. Given Gronk’s injury history, they can’t afford to rely on their star tight end’s health either.

Which is why they absolutely must address the position during the draft. Bringing in a rookie is their only chance to land big-time talent for a price the team can reasonably afford.

Could the Patriots eschew the position they helped bring back into vogue? It’s not inconceivable, but it’s highly improbable and would likely have a devastating effect on their offense.

Brady works the middle of the field as well as any quarterback in the league and relies heavily on his tight ends to do so. The disparity between his 2013 numbers with Gronk and without him is startling.

Tom Brady With and Without Gronkowski
YPGTD/INTCompletion %Rating
With Gronk (7 games)31513/564.195.7
Without Gronk (9 games)237.512/657.580.9

Simply put, Brady isn’t the same quarterback without a reliable tight end.

Gronkowski’s presence had a domino effect on the entire offense. The Patriots as a whole were an offensive juggernaut with him in the lineup, and alarmingly pedestrian without him.

Without a dependable target between the hash marks, New England’s offense stagnates. The Patriots were built around a tight end-centric attack, and their production declined sharply when they were forced to generate other means of offense.

Patriots' 2013 Offense With and Without Gronkowski
Total YPGPoints per Game
With Gronk (7 games)417.732
Without Gronk (9 gams)358.724.4

Luckily for them, this year’s draft is rich in tight ends and they should be able to snag one to complement, or, if necessary, replace Gronkowski.

North Carolina’s Eric Ebron figures to be the first one off the board. B/R’s latest mock draft projects him heading to the Rams with the 13th overall pick. It might be a stretch to consider him falling all the way to New England at No. 29, but stranger things have happened.

Ebron has drawn comparisons to San Francisco’s Vernon Davis, and our own staff likens him to 2013 breakout star Julius Thomas.

In either case, we’re talking about a potentially elite playmaker. The Patriots would likely rejoice to see him fall into their laps in Round 1.

A more likely target for New England is Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro.

A game-breaking receiving threat, Amaro set the NCAA record for most receiving yards in a single season by a tight end with 1,352. At 6’5” tall and 260 pounds, Amaro fits the physical mold of today’s prototypical receiving tight end.

With his tantalizing skill set, the Patriots will need to pounce in the first round to land him, but he’s practically a perfect fit. He and Gronkowski would once again give the Patriots two diverse, explosive weapons at tight end and provide Brady with another dynamic threat in the slot while Gronk recovers from his torn ACL.

Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins could be an option as well, should the Patriots elect to pursue other positions or—surprise!—trade down in the first round.

A physical specimen at 6’6” and 276 pounds, Seferian-Jenkins profiles as more of a safety valve than a game-changer, according to NFLDraftScout.com. But once paired with Gronkowski, he should have no problem finding open space and using his imposing size to engulf the football and give the Patriots another reliable option in the passing game. The Marcedes Lewis comparisons seem apt.

Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz and Georgia’s Arthur Lynch both profile as third- or fourth-round picks according to NFLDraftScout.com, and both could be options for the Patriots as well.

They may not have the cachet of the bigger-name prospects, but both have their merits and were productive in college.

Fiedorowicz in particular makes sense as one of the more highly regarded blocking tight ends in this year’s draft. His presence along the offensive line would free Gronkowski to wreak havoc downfield and give the Patriots a devastating combination to help anchor their power running game.

A wild card in this whole process could be Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas.

Rated as a fringe second-round prospect by NFLDraftScout.com, Niklas played linebacker for the Irish before returning to his natural position of tight end as a sophomore. Overshadowed by his teammate Tyler Eifert, Niklas didn’t really break out until his junior season, and now he’s trying to capitalize on that momentum by declaring for the draft after just three years in school.

The same site compares him to Anthony Fasano, albeit with greater upside. That sort of potential has to be intriguing for a team like the Patriots.

These are just a few early-round options. The draft is rife with other prospects like Wisconsin’s Jacob Pedersen, Colorado State’s Crockett Gillmore and Southern California’s Xavier Grimble, all of whom should be available as the draft wears on.

Whether early or late, or both, there’s no question tight end is a glaring need for the Patriots in the draft, and with the deepest class in years, they’re perfectly positioned to fill it.