By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The New England Patriots have the impossible task to try to “replace” one of the game’s greatest players. And we’re not even talking about Tom Brady, yet.
With Rob Gronkowski announcing his retirement from football on Sunday, the Patriots are left with a gigantic hole on their offense. Gronkowski was no longer the offensive force he once was, but if last year’s Super Bowl run proved anything, it’s that he didn’t need to obliterate and dominate the opposition to help the offense. Just having the monster out there made a difference, whether teams had to respect him with a double team or thanks to Gronkowski’s stellar and underrated impact in the blocking game.
Now that difference will have to come from somewhere else — or somewheres else, since asking one man to “replace” Gronk is both unfair and foolish. It’s not something Bill Belichick is even going to consider as something he can accomplish, because really, no one can ever replace Gronk. All the Patriots can hope for is someone to come in and play their own game, making their own impact on the office.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, there aren’t many (or any) bona fide NFL tight ends left on free agency (sorry to Austin Seferian-Jenkins). They were in talks with Jared Cook, but he opted to join the Saints, concerned about playing time behind Gronkowski. Had he waited a few more days, New England’s tight end depth chart may not have looked so dire at the moment, but here we are.
Luckily for Belichick and Nick Caserio, they have a healthy stash of picks in next month’s upcoming NFL Draft. And though none of the 20-somethings who will have their names called at the end of April will likely ever play at a level close to Gronkowski’s, the Pats should have their pick of supremely talented tight ends who could come in and enjoy their own success in New England.
The Top-Round Talent
T.J. Hockenson, Iowa
6-foot-5, 251 lbs
When it comes to a tight end who can do it all, Hockenson is that guy. Like Gronkowski, he could be one of the best all-around tight ends in the game, with big-play potential and a strong presence in the blocking game (“strong” may be a bit of an understatement). In the passing game, he can beat linebackers with his speed and get the best of safeties thanks to his solid hands.
Hockenson led the Hawkeyes with 49 catches for 760 yards and six touchdowns as a junior in 2018, and won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end (along with Big Ten Tight End of the Year and first-team All-Conference honors). He did so while sharing the field with fellow tight end Noah Fant, who will also be spending his Sundays catching passes in the NFL come September.
It’s highly unlikely any player drafted this year or over the next 20 years will come close to making the kind of impact Rob Gronkowski made during his nine NFL seasons. But Hockenson may have the best shot thanks to his all-around game. The Patriots will have to trade up if they want to draft Hockenson, likely into the Top 10. But with 12 total picks this year, they’e in a good position to do so if they want.
Projected Selection: Early First Round
Noah Fant, Iowa
6-foot-4, 249 lbs
Fant isn’t as big or strong as Hockenson, but he may be a smidgen better in the receiving game — or at least more dynamic. Fant can flex out wide and create some matchup nightmares for smaller defensive backs, which he took full advantage of last year as a junior when he hauled in 39 receptions for 519 yards and seven touchdowns. That production earned him first-team All-Big Ten and third-team All American honors.
Boston fans may remember Fant for a one of his touchdowns during his sophomore season, which he scored against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl (you know, if you actually watched BC in the Pinstripe Bowl). That was one of the 11 touchdowns that Fant scored on the year.
There’s a chance Fant may be around when the Patriots pick at No. 32, but they may have to move up to secure him.
Projected Selection: Late First Round, Early Second Round
The Next Tier
Irv Smith, Alabama
6-foot-2, 242 lbs
While he’s in a lower class than the pair of Hawkeyes in this year’s draft, Alabama’s Irv Smith is no slouch at tight end. He’s coming off a 44-catch, seven-touchdown season for the Crimson Tide, which earned him second-team All-SEC honors, and had a knack for picking up some extra yards after the catch by taking opposing defenders for a bit of a ride (sound familiar?).
Smith will have to bulk up a bit when he gets to the NFL, but he was also touted as a solid blocker in college, especially as a lead-blocker out of the backfield. Sounds like the perfect candidate to lead the charge for James Develin a dozen or so times during the season.
Projected Selection: Second-round
Jace Sternberger, Texas A&M
6-foot-4, 261 lbs
If the Patriots are looking for a tight end they can count on to make a big impact in the passing game, but not so much in the blocking game, Sternberger is their guy. He earned boatloads of honors for his offensive output last season, leading Texas A&M with 48 catches, 832 yards and 10 touchdowns in 13 games. When the season was done, Sternberger was an All-American and a member of the first-team All-SEC squad.
Sternberger runs his routes like a wide receiver, and paired with his good hands and athleticism, many scouts believe he’ll be a solid move tight end who could eventually be considered a slot receiver. He does not, however, have the size or strength to handle the blocking tasks in the NFL, which is what may ultimately keep him off the New England draft board. The Patriots love players who can thrive in multiple aspects of the game, and it sounds like Sternberger’s impact would be solely in the passing game.
But if the Patriots are set on taking two tight ends in the upcoming draft, no one would really complain if a pass-catcher like Sternberger was one of them.
Projected Selection: Late Second-Round, Early Third-Round
The Other Guys
Kahale Warring, San Diego State
6-foot-5, 262 lbs
Warring played just one season of high school football, starring in other sports like basketball, cross country, swimming, soccer, tennis and water polo. Though rugby is not on his list, chances are Bill Belichick has Warring on his radar.
Warring’s one season of football at Sonora High School in California was enough for SDSU to give him a chance as a walk-on. He had some injury issues but was given a scholarship ahead of the 2017 season, catching 18 passes and three touchdowns. He led San Diego State last year with 31 receptions (to go with 372 yards and three touchdowns), but sat out their bowl game because of a hamstring injury.
He has the speed and hands to find a home somewhere on Day 3 of the draft, but Warring will be a project pick for whichever team drafts him. Depending on who they can take ahead of Day 3, the Patriots may not have the time or patience for such an endeavor.
Projected Selection: Day 3
Dax Raymond, Utah State
6-foot-4, 255 lbs
Known more for his blocking, Raymond has shown that he can do some damage as a receiver. He had 41 receptions for 456 yards and a touchdown as a junior, before following it up with a 27-catch, two-touchdown campaign last year.
Projected Selection: Mid-Day 3
Dawson Knox, Ole Miss
6-foot-4, 254 lbs
Knox had only 15 receptions last year, taking a back seat to Running Rebel receivers D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown (they combined for 111 of Ole Miss’ receptions last year). But he showed some signs that he can become a deep threat, so the Patriots could take a flyer on him come the final day of the draft.
Projected selection: Late Day 3