By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — For nine years, Rob Gronkowski spoiled Patriots fans with some of the most incredible and dynamic play from the tight end position. Not only could he torch and crush opposing teams in the passing game, but he was one of the best blockers at the position to boot.
It’s unlikely that anyone will ever be able to recreate Gronk’s dominance during his NFL career. Some may come close to his pass-catching abilities, but few possess the complete package like Gronkowski.
It should be no surprise that the Patriots weren’t able to “replace” Gronkowski last season, but it would have been really nice if they had tried. They didn’t use any of their draft picks on the position in a draft littered with talented tight ends. Instead, they convinced Ben Watson to come out of retirement for one final run, and relied on Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo to help fill the void in the wake of Gronkowski’s retirement. It didn’t work out too swimmingly for the Patriots, who had some of the worst tight end production in the league in 2019.
Armed with 12 selections in this year’s draft, and with very few options left on the free agent market, it would be in Bill Belichick’s best interest to snag one come late April. He has a good group to choose from, whether he wants a dynamic pass-catcher or the total tight end package:
Cole Kmet, Notre Dame
Weight: 262 lbs
2019 Stats: 43 catches, 515 yards, 6 touchdowns
Kmet (which is pronounced kuh-MET) was a two-sport athlete when he first arrived at South Bend, with a desire to play football and baseball. He notched eight saves for the Fighting Irish as a freshman, but shifted his focus to football as a sophomore.
That proved to be a wise decision. After catching 15 passes his sophomore season, Kmet was quarterback Ian Book’s second-favorite target in 2019, finishing behind receiver Chase Claypool in all major categories. He finished his collegiate career with 60 receptions for 691 yards and six touchdowns over 23 games.
While he’s a big target who can get downfield and has a good set of mitts, he’ll need to work on his blocking in the NFL. But Kmet is the top tight end on the board and there’s a slight chance he’ll be available at No. 23. The Pats would be wise to snag him as a future building block if that’s the case.
Adam Trautman, Dayton
Weight: 255 lbs
2019 Stats: 70 catches, 916 yards, 14 touchdowns
No one has been drafted out of Dayton since the late 1970s. That will change this year.
Trautman, who models his game after 49ers star tight end George Kittle, is one of the best pass-catchers in the draft. He put together an impressive four-year career with the Flyers, hauling in 31 touchdowns.
The Patriots met with Trautman at the NFL Combine, and he has the versatility that will appeal to Belichick. As a freshman, Trautman lined up at tight end, in the slot, and played a little Wildcat QB for the Flyers. And one nugget that will certainly be thrown out there by play-by-play and color commentators at least a dozen or so times every game: Trautman played quarterback in high school.
He has great size but will need to work on his blocking when he reaches the NFL. And all of his college stats came against lesser opponents in the Pioneer League of the FCS, so there are question marks regarding what he can do at the next level.
But Trautman could be a very intriguing selection for New England.
Brycen Hopkins, Purdue
Weight: 245 lbs
2019 Stats: 61 catches, 830 yards, 7 touchdowns
Despite not playing football until he hit high school, Hopkins has football in his blood. His father, Brad, enjoyed a 13-year career as a Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the Houston/Tennessee Oilers.
The younger Hopkins got better in each of his collegiate seasons, hauling in 61 catches and seven touchdowns as a senior after catching just 69 passes and nine touchdowns his previous three years. He averaged 15 yards per reception for his career with the Boilermakers.
Hopkins brought home several accolades after his senior season, named a first-team AP All-American and Big Ten Tight End of the Year while also earning first-team All-Big Ten honors. He is better known for his pass-catching than his blocking, and will need to cut down on his drops in the pros.
Harrison Bryant, Florida Atlantic
Weight: 243 lbs
2019 Stats: 65 catches, 1,004 yards, 7 touchdowns
Bryant is the total package, with great ball skills and solid blocking on the line. He won the John Mackey Award in his final year at FAU, given to the nation’s top tight end. He was a First-Team All-Conference pick in both his junior and senior year, catching 110 passes and 11 touchdowns over that span, leading all D1 tight ends in receptions and yards in 2019. Overall, he found the end zone 16 times at Florida Atlantic.
A former offensive tackle in high school, Bryant is seen as the best all-round tight end prospect in the 2020 draft. He could be a high-volume pass-catcher from the jump, but will have to add a little more size for his blocking skills to carry over to the next level.
Hunter Bryant, Washington
Weight: 248 lbs
2019 Stats: 52 catches, 825 yards, 3 touchdowns
While Harrison Bryant won the Mackey Award, Hunter Bryant (no relation) was one of the three finalists after racking up some incredible stats as a junior in 2019. His 52 receptions last season were the second-most in Washington history, and he came up just 25 yards short of setting a new school record for receiving yards by a tight end. He finished his collegiate career with 85 career receptions for 1,394 yards, the fourth- and second-most, respectively, by a tight end in Washington history.
So the kid can clearly catch the football, and that’s expected to continue at the next level. He has great hands and with his speed, he can pick up yards after hauling in passes. But he’s a tad undersized and will likely get bullied at the line in the NFL, so he’d be your typical move tight end, used more as a weapon in the passing game to create mismatches than as a blocker for a ground attack.
This Bryant should still be on the board when the Patriots get their turn late in the third round.
Albert Okwuegbunam, Missouri
Weight: 258 lbs
2019 Stats: 26 catches, 306 yards, 6 touchdowns
Okwuegbunam (pronounced O-coo-WAY-boo-nham) is known as “Albert O,” which is convenient because Okwuegbunam will surely lead to some late-night wakeups among sports writers.
He could also lead to some difficult matchups in the NFL, but he carries just as many pros as he does cons. He’s a speedy receiver and can win jump balls — especially in the end zone. The touchdown magnet caught 11 scores as a redshirt freshman in 2017, and finished his three-year career at Missouri with 23 touchdowns in 27 games. He earned All-SEC honors as a freshman and junior.
But he’s not a great blocker and would need to do a lot of work on his technique at the next level, so he’d be another move tight end option and not much else. Many draft experts say he’ll have to improve his route-running as well. There are also injury concerns with Okwuegbunam, who missed chunks of time in each of his three seasons at Missouri with shoulder and knee injuries.
The potential is certainly there for Okwuegbunam, but he’s a boom-or-bust kind of pick. Once projected to go somewhere in the first round, he may have to wait until Day 2 or even Day 3 to hear his named called.
Thaddeus Moss, LSU
Weight: 250 lbs
2019 Stats: 47 catches, 570 yards, 4 touchdowns
He’s Randy Moss’ kid. What else do we need to know?
The younger Moss declared for the NFL draft after a big game in LSU’s national championship win over Clemson, where he hauled in five receptions for 36 yards and two touchdowns. His 62-yard touchdown gave LSU a 28-17 lead just before halftime, and his third quarter score extended LSU’s lead to 35-25. In his two seasons in college, split between NC State and LSU, Moss caught 53 passes and scored five touchdowns.
While his overall stats don’t compare to those of other tight end prospects in this year’s draft, Moss is considered the best blocker of the bunch. He’s willing to do the dirty work in the trenches, which will absolutely appeal to Bill Belichick. Moss is projected to be a Day 3 pick.