The Patriots need to draft some insurance for Rob Gronkowski this offseason.
Other than Gronkowski, D.J. Williams—who hardly saw the field in 2013—is the only tight end on the current roster. Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan are both free agents.
After the "Move" tight ends go off the board—Eric Ebron and Jace Amaro—there will be a run on the "Y" tight ends. The competition between the top three will be fierce.
Here are how Troy Niklas (TE, Notre Dame), C.J. Fiedorowicz (TE, Iowa) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (TE, Washington) stack up against each other in four categories: size, speed, blocking and receiving.
If you're going to contribute as a "Y" tight end for the New England Patriots, you need enough size to be an effective blocker and create mismatches in the passing game.
Troy Niklas measured in at the combine at 6'6" and 270 pounds, with 34.25" arms and 10" hands. Those are prototypical numbers for the position. Rob Gronkowski came in at 6'6", 264 pounds, 34.25" arms and massive 10.75" hands at the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine.
C.J. Fiedorowicz nearly matched Niklas, but he came up short at 6'5" and 265 pounds with 33" arms and 10.25" hands. It doesn't show up on tape, but the shorter arms are a disadvantage when blocking on the edge.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins was the "smallest" of the three, coming in at 6'5" and 262 pounds. He had 33.75" arms and 9.75" hands.
Verdict: Troy Niklas
Speed isn't the top priority for a "Y" tight end, but Rob Gronkowski has shown that huge guys that can run fast are tough to stop. Neither of these three have speed that approaches Gronkowski-territory.
Only Fiedorowicz was able to run the 40-yard dash at the combine—Niklas and Seferian-Jenkins were both nursing injuries—and clocked a solid 4.76 mark. Niklas will likely run in the same range at his pro timing day, while Seferian-Jenkins has a chance to break the 4.7 barrier.
Fiedorowicz impressed with a 7.10 three-cone drill—top among tight ends at the combine—while Niklas' 7.57 time might have been due to his injury. Seferian-Jenkins didn't participate in any running events in Indianapolis.
Rob Gronkowski's pass-catching prowess gets most of the attention, but his dominant blocking is just as important for the New England Patriots' offense.
If tight ends can't block effectively, the offense loses the ability to use "12" personnel as both an effective running and passing personnel grouping. That duality causes defenses all kinds of problems, especially when the Patriots go no-huddle.
Niklas and Fiedorowicz are both dominant inline blockers. They can both maul in the run game and sometimes look like a third offensive tackle on the field.
Fiedorowicz sets himself apart in his pass-blocking. Where Fiedorowicz—coached up by former Belichick coaches Kirk and Brian Ferentz at Iowa—remains solid moving backwards, Niklas can get sloppy in his pass sets. On occasion, he will get put on skates when edge-rushers try power moves.
Seferian-Jenkins excels in the phone booth as both a run- and pass-blocker, but his technique tends to break down when he is in space. With the amount of screens that the Patriots run, that flaw would be accentuated.
Verdict: C.J. Fiedorowicz
As important as blocking is, tight ends in the New England Patriots' offense have to be able to get open and catch the football.
Troy Niklas is big and strong; he certainly uses that to his advantage. He is the most physical receiver of the three by far. Niklas is great in the rebound drill—boxing out smaller defenders—and should be a terror in the red zone. That said, he isn't polished as a receiver—he came to Notre Dame as a linebacker—and needs to work on sharpening up his routes.
C.J. Fiedorowicz isn't as dynamic as Niklas—that may be in part to the conservative Iowa offense—but what he does, he does well. He runs curls and outs as good as any tight end in the NFL and is extremely effective at getting open in the red zone. He could have notched a few more touchdowns his senior season if the Iowa quarterback hadn't chosen to run touchdowns in himself.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins has the same physical tools that Niklas does, but he doesn't put them to as good a use. He isn't as physical as he could be with his size and strength and seems to struggle getting off press coverage from linebackers at times.
When he gets out into his route, he exhibits a solid catch-radius and can do some damage with the ball in his hands. Seferian-Jenkins might be a very good receiver in the NFL, but New England might not be the right place for him.
Verdict: C.J. Fiedorowicz, with Niklas a close second
When the New England Patriots decide which "Y" tight end to select in the 2014 NFL draft—they will select one—they are going to have to make a choice between the present and the future.
C.J. Fiedorowicz and Troy Niklas are both better fits than Austin Seferian-Jenkins but factors outside the prospects' control could be the deciding factor. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick's ages might play a factor in which prospect they want to select.
If the Patriots want a polished player that can fit in as a rookie without any hiccups, Fiedorowicz should be the pick. He offers an upgrade over Michael Hoomanawanui as a blocker and a receiver, without adding a lot of risk to the equation.
That said, if the Patriots are willing to be a bit more patient, Troy Niklas looks like the better long-term investment. If he can work on his route-running and continue to improve his agility, Niklas could be the Mark Bavaro that Bill Belichick has been looking for.
Verdict: C.J. Fiedorowicz (short-term) or Troy Niklas (long-term)