The Patriots' production from the tight end position was otherworldly from the years 2010-2012, but with Gronkowski injured for much of the season and with Hernandez in prison for its entirety, the Patriots were forced to rely on the services of third-string tight end Michael Hoomanawanui.
The Patriots were not disappointed with what they saw from "Hooman"—otherwise they wouldn't have re-signed him this offseason—but if he is the top backup again in 2014, something has gone wrong. There are simply too many opportunities to find a quality tight end in the draft, and with so many shapes, sizes and varieties of tight end, the Patriots should have plenty to choose from.
Depending on what they are looking for in a tight end, these are some guys they could be considering in the draft.
Rob Gronkowski backup
Troy Niklas, Notre Dame
At 6'6" and 270 pounds with 34.5" arms, Niklas has almost exactly the same frame as Gronkowski. In that respect, he is similarly able to make contested catches and box out defenders.
Niklas is still working on his blocking ability, and like most college prospects headed into the pros, he could benefit from some time in an NFL training program that will help him get stronger and more powerful.
There's plenty of time for Niklas to reach his full potential; he only began playing tight end two years ago.
Whichever team drafts Niklas won't have to wait long to see a return on investment, though, as he comes equipped with the size and physicality necessary to make catches over the middle and the athleticism and fluid hips to run almost any route from the tight end position. That being said, he's not overly athletic to make defenders miss in the open field.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington
When it comes to measurables, Austin Seferian-Jenkins checks off all the boxes. He looks the part at 6'5" and 262 pounds with 33.75" arms, and he knows how to use that frame to create separation over smaller defensive backs, particularly in the red zone. He's not particularly elusive in the open field, but his size makes him tough to bring down once he gets the ball in his hands.
Seferian-Jenkins wasn't shy about dropping some pretty big comparisons.
Like the former UCLA Bruins star, Seferian-Jenkins unique size and hands made him almost impossible to cover in college, especially in the red zone. Less than elite speed and fluidity, however, makes Seferian-Jenkins more of a traditional security blanket over the middle rather than the Jimmy Graham-like seam threat so en vogue in today's NFL.
He's not a great big-play threat, lacking the long speed to test defenses on seam routes, but he is a dangerous red-zone threat as evidenced by his 21 career touchdowns in three years at Washington.
His pass-catching skills are not the extent of his ability; he has made strides as a blocker, showing improved strength and technique as his blocking responsibilities grew over the course of the 2013 season.
Arthur Lynch, Georgia
Lynch is more well-known for his blocking abilities than pass-catching abilities, and it shouldn't come as much of a surprise. He only logged 54 receptions for 890 yards and eight touchdowns over the past two seasons—not bad but far from elite production at the tight end spot.
Rang indicates his blocking ability may actually be what gets him more consideration from NFL teams:
Lynch's strength and awareness as an in-line blocker rank among his most impressive attributes at this point in his career. He is quick off the snap, latches onto defenders quickly and securely and is competitive. He is particularly effective on combination blocks in which he initially helps an offensive tackle double-team a defensive lineman before switching off to chip a linebacker at the second level.
The Patriots have been known to use their tight ends in a similar fashion, so Lynch could find his skills put to immediate use in the NFL. His toughness is not limited to his abilities as a blocker, though, as he shows a tough and competitive side when running after the catch.
Two other areas working in his favor for Patriots consideration: his special teams experience and his status as a team captain. The Patriots have drafted a lot of players who were once captains on their team over the past several years.
Aaron Hernandez replacement
It would be a surprise for Ebron to be available when the Patriots pick at No. 29, but he could become an option if he begins to fall and the Patriots feel like trading up a few spots.
Ebron is the best candidate to fill the Aaron Hernandez role on the field.
He uses his 6'4", 250-pound frame to help him gain leverage against a defender, and his long arms give him a massive catch radius to make catches in traffic. He shows off his 4.6 40 speed as both an open-field runner and when he's running down the seam.
Ebron has a little more upside as a blocker and flashes the ability to maintain blocks in the running game. As a rookie and until he polishes that area of his game, he should be used in a similar manner to Hernandez.
Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
Amaro lit up the scouting combine with top-five finishes among tight ends in the 40-yard dash (4.74 seconds), bench press (28 reps), vertical jump (33 inches), broad jump (118 inches), 20-yard shuttle (4.3 seconds) and 60-yard shuttle (12.26 seconds).
At 6'5" and 265 pounds, Amaro has a frame like Gronkowski but does not have the blocking ability to match. He has been moved around in Texas Tech's offense, often lining up as a slot receiver.
NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki is critical of his lack of "bulk, base strength and body power" as traits that could hold him back from ever being a true in-line tight end capable of holding up against defensive ends. At the same time, Amaro doesn't have the long speed that would make him a vertical threat when lined up on the outside.
He may be lacking functional strength, but he's not lacking for toughness, as he'll often be seen lowering his shoulder to plow through defenders trying to bring him down.
Colt Lyerla, Oregon
Every year, there is usually at least one player with supreme athletic ability and off-field concerns to match. Lyerla fits the mold at tight end.
Lyerla moved all over the field as a matchup piece in Oregon's offense and even played some running back, with 16 career carries and two rushing touchdowns. As a receiver, he has the quickness to operate in space, but he shows a remarkable amount of toughness with the ball in his hands to keep his legs churning while defenders try to bring him down.
He has more speed than the average tight end as well and ran a 4.61 40-yard dash at the scouting combine.
But you just can't talk about Lyerla without bringing up his myriad off-field issues; according to Rob Rang of CBS Sports, Lyerla was arrested when caught doing cocaine and had his license suspended after getting four speeding tickets in the past 24 months. Before any of this occurred, he quit the team.
Those off-field issues may remove him from the Patriots' board altogether, but if they are confident that he can be committed to football and stay out of trouble, he could be worth a Day 3 pick.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases. All salary-cap and contract information provided by Spotrac. All combine measurements and performance numbers provided by NFL.com.