Lazar’s Combine Watch List: Tight Ends on the Patriots Radar This Offseason

The Patriots will be aggressive in the tight end market this offseason.

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The tight end position on the Patriots roster bottomed out after Rob Gronkowski’s retirement. 

New England ranked dead-last in receptions at the position only 37 for the entire 2019 season with Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse among others accumulating 419 yards (31st). Even as a shell of himself in his final season, Gronk easily beat those numbers on his own (47 rec, 682 yards), along with the blocking boost he gave the Pats in the running game. 

Not to get into old bouts, but the Patriots got what they paid for after Gronk’s late announcement, punting entirely on the 2019 tight end class, making the 39-year-old Watson and LaCosse their most significant acquisitions of the offseason. They knew what they were in for in their first post-Gronk year. 

My sense is that the Patriots would like to make significant moves this offseason to rebuild the tight end position and supply Tom Brady, or whoever the quarterback is, with better pass catchers at a crucial position in the style of offense they like to play in Foxboro. 

The crop of free-agent tight ends is below-average after the big prizes, and although they want to add, we’ll see how much they’re willing to commit in a free-agent contract.

The markets for Hunter Henry, Austin Hooper, and Eric Ebron are worth monitoring. Henry is a strong candidate for the franchise tag in LA, and Hooper and Ebron will have plenty of suitors, but all three are fits. 

Going the trade route is also intriguing, with former first-rounder David Njoku as my top choice. Njoku battled injuries and inconsistency in Cleveland, falling out of favor with the coaching staff, but is a super athlete with flashes of his potential on his NFL tape and put up 56 receptions, 639 yards, and four touchdowns in 16 games in 2018. 

For now, though, we turn to Indianapolis, and the NFL scouting combine, where we’ll get a closer look at the tight end class for the 2020 draft.

After studying the top prospects, I don’t love any of the options in the first round, but there’s a nice run of starting-caliber talent on day two, where the Pats have three third-round picks. 

Based on pre-combine tape grading, Purdue’s Brycen Hopkins sits atop my board, but Hopkins is a 240-pound tight end that doesn’t project as an in-line option. Hopkins, Washington’s Hunter Bryant, and Florida Atlantic’s Harrison Bryant are potential mismatches in the passing game that can move around the formation if the Pats want to go that route. But they typically shy away from sacrificing blocking and size until day three. 

My focus is on the in-line tight ends that fit the typical Patriots mold — size and blocking upside while possessing enough speed to threaten between the numbers. 

Here’s my NFL Combine Watch List for the Patriots at the tight end position: 

ADAM TRAUTMAN, DAYTON (6-5, 251 POUNDS) 

Currently behind Hopkins in my rankings, the massive Trautman is incredibly smooth as a route runner for his frame while possessing some serious power at the point of attack as a blocker. He’ll make the jump from the FCS to the pro level, which might take some time, but he was a standout at this year’s Senior Bowl and dominated the FCS like an NFL caliber prospect should (70 catches, 916 yards, 14 TDs in 2019). 

The Dayton product flashes rare movement skills for a six-foot-five, 250-pound tight end. Usually, you see stiffness and some sluggishness with those kinds of players, but Trautman has the flexibility to run detailed routes to beat man coverage. 

(video credit: Brad Kelly)

Here, Trautman runs a nasty corner-post route where he beats bracket coverage by faking the corner and then flashing over the middle on the post after selling the break to fool the inside defender. 

Trautman is also aware of the nuances to route running, such as sneaking into blindspots and threatening leverage to make defenders uncomfortable. Plus, he’s a willing and powerful blocker that will maul defenders in the running game as he did during the Senior Bowl with a few pancakes of NFL-caliber defensive ends. There’s certainly loads of projections whenever you’re dealing with an FCS prospect, but Trautman is the real deal. 

COLE KMET, NOTRE DAME (6-5, 255 POUNDS)

There’s some buzz that Kmet could go in the first round because of his frame and traits. He’s got great size and runs well up the seam. Kmet has a good initial burst off the line that will help him clear the linebackers at the next level with ease on the types of play-action schemes the Patriots love (crossers, seams, skinny post, etc.). He also possesses strong hands to snag the ball in traffic and will make catches outside of his frame. 

The Notre Dame product has the frame and baseline tools to develop into a good blocker, he’s more effort than technique at the moment, but Kmet was capable of moving defensive ends out of gaps and making blocks on the move. He is mostly ready to contribute to an NFL offense right away as a receiver, and with some fine-tuning, the blocking will come. I’d like him to be more dynamic as a route runner and ball carrier to take him in the first round, though.

THADDEUS MOSS, LSU (6-3, 225 POUNDS)

If the Patriots don’t draft a tight end early, using one of their late thirds on Randy Moss’s son, Thadd, makes a great story and a lot of football sense. The Pats will have to sacrifice a little on their size parameters, but despite stature, Moss is the most complete blocker in this class. A critical component to the nations best offenses and rushing attacks, LSU moved Moss around the formation, asking him to block from all angles and alignments. 

We see this kind of diversity as a run blocker with certain specialists in the college game, but Moss has some upside as a receiver as well. Although he isn’t much of a deep threat, Moss was great at reading through short and intermediate zones as well as bodying defenders in man coverage as a security blanket for Joe Burrow. Believe it or not, Randy’s son isn’t an explosive athlete on tape, and the combine will be a litmus test of his upside as a receiver. 

JARED PINKNEY, VANDERBILT (6-4, 254 POUNDS)

Pinkney is your classic mid-round tight end prospect that can handle in-line blocking duties and made plays in the passing game within the structure of the offense. He’s the slowest of all the options we’ve covered, but he has reliable hands and made more plays down the field when he was healthier as a junior in 2018. Most of his production last season came underneath the defense or when openings presented themselves within the scheme. There are some impressive adjusting and tracking skills when given a chance, but he’s not a significant receiving threat as of now due to his lack of a higher-gear and explosiveness as a ball carrier. 

As a blocker, Pinkney has good balance and takes the right approach into his engagements. He certainly has the punching power and diagnosis things well on the move. There are a few technical tweaks he could make to improve in this phase, such as punch placement and sustaining blocks, but he’s got a good baseline technique along with the size and strength. Pinkney won’t “wow” anyone as an athlete, so that could knock him down into day three. 

SLEEPER: JOSIAH DEGUARA, CINCINNATI (6-2, 245 POUNDS)

Deguara was an entertaining study. Although he’s more of a move tight end, he’s an extremely versatile player with the strength and compete level to handle some in-line responsibilities. Deguara also has experience as a flexed out receiver or perimeter blocker. In the passing game, he has some juice to test linebackers and runs his routes with good pacing, making him dangerous on play-action. There’s some wasted movement in his horizontal breaks, but he’s smooth in and out, uses successful head fakes to set up defenders, and makes seamless vertical transitions. He also makes quick decisions and makes himself friendly to the quarterback against zone coverage. 

In the running game, Deguara’s effort as a blocker is outstanding, and he truly did it all. His feet are excellent, keeping a balanced base and squaring up defenders either in-line or on the move. Once he learns to play with more consistent leverage and strike points with his hands, he’s going to shine and offers some value as a potential h-back. Deguara doesn’t have ideal size, and there are some doubts about his overall athleticism, but he can silence those doubters in Indy.