New England Patriots: 5 Players Who Could Help Replace Rob Gronkowski


Rob Gronkowski’s retirement from the NFL on a Sunday night in March sent shockwaves across the football community. The impact Gronkowski had on the Patriots was tremendous, and his absence will be felt next season.

In an attempt to fill the void left by Gronkowski, the New England Patriots struck a deal with free agent tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who is looking to prove himself again after a series of injuries.

But Seferian-Jenkins cannot singlehandedly replace Gronkowski, so who else will the Patriots check out to replace the future Hall of Famer?


O.J. Howard

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints: O.J. Howard
Sep 9, 2018; New Orleans, LA, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard (80) gestures after a catch against the New Orleans Saints in the second quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Everybody knows that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in a weird position where they still want to compete with their division but know they cannot contend for a playoff spot, and thus must rebuild. How do you rebuild? It’s simple: build up draft picks and build a younger core to strengthen your future.

The Buccaneers certainly benefit from Howard’s presence, especially on toss-ups in the end zone, but they have another tight end under contract for much longer in Cameron Brate, who is under contract through the end of the 2023 season after signing an extension last March. Meanwhile, Howard is under contract for two to three more years (whether or not his fifth-year option is exercised for the 2021 season) and is set to earn less than $3.5 million combined over the next two campaigns.


The 2017 first-round pick started 22 of the 24 games he has appeared in, including all 14 of the games he appeared in during the 2017 campaign. Due to injury, Howard’s 2018 game total declined, but on the field, he flourished, appearing in 60 percent of his team’s snaps and finishing the season with 34 catches on 48 targets for 565 yards and five touchdowns.

Verdict: New England Patriots acquire tight end O.J. Howard from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in exchange for a 2019 fourth-round pick (No. 134) and a 2020 seventh-round pick.

Irv Smith, Jr.

Irv Smith Jr.
Credit: Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY Sports

Of the three tight ends rumored to go in the first round, Smith seems like the most likely candidate. First of all, he is expected to be the best tight end still available when New England is on the clock at No. 32. Second, Smith arguably had the most impressive showing at the NFL Combine out of all tight ends in attendance.

Through 15 games with Alabama in 2018, hauled in 44 passes for 710 yards and seven touchdowns. Although as a rookie he likely won’t be able to be the clear one-and-only tight end on a roster like Gronkowski was with only Dwayne Allen and Jacob Hollister behind him, you have to remember that Smith will be able to get some assistance from newly-signed tight ends Seferian-Jenkins, Matt LaCosse, and Stephen Anderson.


At the Combine, Smith ran a 4.63 40-yard dash, bench pressed 19 reps, jumped 32.5 inches vertically and 110 inches broadly, and completed the three-cone drill in just over seven-and-a-quarter seconds. Some of his weaknesses are in the passing game when he slows down to make the catch and rarely gives an extra effort to haul in an underthrow, but those are outweighed by the strengths, such as his speed to create separation and blow by slower defensive backs, and his ability to reach and secure the edge thanks to his footwork.

Verdict: Patriots select tight end Irv Smith, Jr. with the 32nd selection in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Maxx Williams

NFL: Baltimore Ravens-Training Camp: Maxx Williams
Jul 31, 2016; Owings Mills, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens tight end Maxx Williams (87) runs after the catch during the morning session of training camp at Under Armour Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Although adding a standout receiver to the tight end position would be good, the Patriots already have a bunch of lesser-known names like LaCosse, Anderson, Jacob Hollister, and Ryan Izzo on the roster; one would think that one of these guys could have an impact on the team larger than what was expected of them.

Maxx Williams could be a target for the Patriots as free agency winds down and the talent available dwindles. While Williams isn’t a household name for his receiving (through six starts and 13 games in 2018, he caught 16 of 17 targets for 143 yards and a touchdown), his blocking could be a major contribution in New England during a two-tight end set situation, as he was ranked as the seventh-best run blocker in 2018 by Pro Football Focus.

The longer Williams remains a free agent, the more his price drops. If New England and Williams can agree to a team-friendly multi-year deal, it would be a definite improvement and a great move for the Patriots.

Verdict: New England Patriots sign tight end Maxx Williams to a three-year, $2.85 million contract.

T.J. Hockenson

Syndication: HawkCentral: TJ Hockenson
Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson celebrates after catching a first down pass during the senior day match-up between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium, in Iowa City. (Credit/USA TODAY Sports)

Of the three tight ends rumored to go in the first round, Hockenson may be the toughest to get, as he has picked up the most hype and is expected to be selected in the top 20 picks. Therefore, if New England really wants him, they would need to make a trade to move up in the draft.

Through 13 games with Iowa in 2018, Hockenson hauled in 49 passes for 760 yards and six touchdowns while adding a four-yard rush to his résumé.

According to’s draft profile feature, Hockenson deserves to be a starter from Day 1 in the league. At the Combine, Hockenson ran a 4.7-second 40-yard dash, had 17 reps during the bench press drill, vertically jumped 37.5 inches, broad jumped 123 inches, and completed the three-cone drill in just over seven seconds. When discussing Hockenson, an anonymous NFC pro personnel director said he is a “freaky athlete. I thought he would go back [to Iowa], but I’m glad he didn’t. I think he will beat [Irv Smith] off the board first.”

Verdict: New England Patriots acquire a 2019 first-round pick (No. 21) from the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for a 2019 first-round pick (No. 32), a 2019 third-round pick (No. 97), and a 2020 sixth-round pick. Then, the Patriots select tight end T.J. Hockenson with the 21st selection in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Noah Fant

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa (Noah Fant)
Sep 22, 2018; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes tight end Noah Fant (87) reacts after a touchdown against the Wisconsin Badgers during the second quarter at Kinnick Stadium. Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Of the three tight ends rumored to go in the first round, Fant is in the middle. He also has the most questions surrounding is his name. Could he drop to the second round, or does he get taken in the top 10 picks? Is he better than his former teammate, Hockenson?

Through 12 games with Iowa in 2018, splitting time with Hockenson, Fant hauled in 39 passes for 519 yards and seven touchdowns.

At the NFL Combine, Fant ran a 4.5 40-yard dash, had 20 reps on the bench press, vertically jumped 39.5 inches and tallied 127 inches on the broad jump, and finished the three-cone drill in 6.81 seconds (more than two-tenths of a second faster than Hockenson).

While some people are concerned about his toughness, grit, and inability to fight through challenging matchups, Fant also carries lots of optimism with him; he averaged a touchdown for nearly every four touchdowns during his career at Iowa, he is flexible and is able to adjust to poor throws, and he has speed that many tight ends at the NFL level dream of.

Verdict: New England Patriots acquire a 2019 first-round pick (No. 25) from the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a 2019 first-round pick (No. 32) and a 2019 third-round pick (No. 97). Then, the Patriots select tight end Noah Fant with the 25th selection in the 2019 NFL Draft.



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