The Patriots’ offense experienced a massive loss when Rob Gronkowski officially announced his retirement from the NFL.
Gronk spent the past nine seasons burning past linebackers and plowing through safeties on his way to becoming New England’s all-time receiving touchdown (79) leader. His 7,861 receiving yards are the second-most in franchise history. He stepped up in the postseason and carried the offense in clutch moments. His 12 postseason touchdowns are the second-most in NFL history. He has 1,163 career postseason receiving yards which are the ninth-most in history.
Needless to say, replacing Rob Gronkowski is an impossible task because Gronk is one-of-a-kind. There will never be another Gronk, but the Patriots need to attempt to fill the giant hole that he’s leaving by drafting a tight end in April. New England was already looking to bring youth to the tight end position but Gronk’s retirement has now forced the Patriots to put even more emphasis on drafting a tight end.
Luckily this year’s draft class is wealthy with tight ends. Iowa’s Noah Fant and T.J. Hockensen are the top-tier when it comes to tight ends and will likely be drafted before the Patriots get to the podium. The middle rounds will yield plenty of tight end talent for New England to consider.
Here are the top tight end prospects that New England should target in order of highest priority:
Irv Smith Jr., Alabama
6’2”, 242 pounds
Irv Smith Jr. isn’t the tallest tight end in this year’s draft, but he certainly plays bigger than he actually is. He has the size to be dangerous after the catch and the quickness to elude defenders. He is excellent at slipping up the seam and strength to power through contact while finishing runs by dragging defenders for extra yards.
Although he is only 6’2”, he is able to post up defenders out of his breaks which can be incredibly useful in the endzone. He has strong hands that help him secure the contested catches. Smith Jr. uses his 32.5-inch vertical to elevate and compete for the football. He is an effective blocker off the wing or as a fullback which would fit perfectly in New England’s offense.
Smith’s father was a first-round selection at tight end out of Notre Dame, and his uncle also played in the NFL. He has the pedigree and talent to excel under the right tutelage. The Patriots may have to consider Smith Jr. with the 32nd pick, but if he makes into the second-round, New England would be an ideal landing spot at a great value.
Jace Sternberger, Texas A&M
6’4”, 251 pounds
Jace Sternberger transferred into a perfect situation under Texas A&M Head Coach Jimbo Fisher. Sternberger had an outstanding season that produced 832 yards and 10 touchdowns on 48 receptions. His stellar season resulted in him becoming a consensus All-American and earning first-team All-SEC honors.
Sternberger is a gifted route-runner with a large catch radius and capable hands. He isn’t the fastest tight end (4.75 40-time), but he runs his routes like a wide receiver which can create matchup problems versus linebackers on the second and third levels. He has outstanding hand-eye coordination that allows him to catch the ball in stride and away from his body.
Blocking can be an issue for Jace Sternberger but with the some added weight that will come with NFL strength training he can improve to a level that allows him to stay on the field for a three down.
Dawson Knox, Ole Miss
6’4”, 254 pounds
Dawson Knox is an unusual prospect because has elite size and speed with an NFL-caliber frame, but was highly underutilized at Ole Miss. They had some high-profile mouths to feed in D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown, but Knox has all the intangibles that should’ve been put to use by their offensive coordinator. He had a measly 15 receptions for 284 yards in 2018 and ended his career without catching a single touchdown.
It’s hard to imagine these number translating to a successful NFL career but he has the potential to be molded into a legitimate threat at tight end. He ran a 4.57 40-yard dash at Ole Miss’ Pro Day which would’ve been the third-fastest if he was able to run at the combine. This speed will allow him to beat linebackers up the seam and get to the third level with a step on his defender. He has above-average hands when given the opportunity while also excelling at tracking and adjusting to the ball.
Knox is a solid blocker and probably one of the better blocking tight ends in the draft. Bill Belichick requires tight ends that can block and can get downfield. Knox checks all the boxes even though he could be considered a bit of a gamble. His 40-time may have elevated his draft stock, but if the Patriots could land him in the third round it could be the steal of the draft.
Josh Oliver, San Jose State
6’5”, 249 pounds
Josh Oliver was San Jose State’s best weapon on offense and was repeatedly faced with extra coverage and schemes designed to take him out. Despite the extra attention, he had a stand-out senior season where he caught 56 balls for 708 yards and four touchdowns and earned first-team All-Mountain West Conference honors.
Oliver is a top-notch receiver that was asked to run every route on the route tree and did it at a high level. He can beat defenders on all three levels with the ball tracking skills and catch radius to win over the middle and downfield. He has a big frame and is able to absorb the crushing blows from attacking safeties and linebackers.
He is a tremendous offensive weapon but needs to improve on his in-line blocking. He shows that he can be coached into an efficient pass-blocker which would allow him to become a three-down player. He’s likely a third or fourth-round player that could yield early-round returns in Josh McDaniels’ system and under Bill Belichick’s coaching.
Caleb Wilson, UCLA
6’4”, 240 pounds
Caleb Wilson was one of Josh Rosen’s favorite targets and helped propel him to his first-round draft selection. Before his season ended early from injury, Wilson had 38 catches for 490 yards and one touchdown in just five games with Rosen. His senior season was even more spectacular as he had nearly 1,000 yards receiving and caught four touchdown grabs.
Wilson ran a 4.56 40-yard dash at the combine which was one the better times in this draft class. He has the speed to compete up the seam and is excellent on deep out-routes. He showed the ability to rescue high throws with his long arms and bail out the quarterback by digging balls out of the dirt. He’s flashed at times after the catch, running with determination and can eat up yardage if the ball hits him in stride.
There is a lot of work to be put into Caleb Wilson’s development in order for him to reach his true potential. New England needs an NFL-ready tight end sooner rather than later, but Wilson may absorb information quick enough to make a difference early in his career.