“March 24th, 2019: A day which will live infamously. Robert Gronkowski, otherwise known as Gronk, otherwise otherwise known as a living, breathing beast, has retired from football. - Michael Scott"
Rob Gronkowski burst onto the scene in 2010, posting 10 touchdowns in his rookie season. Since then, he’s been arguably the most dominant offensive force in the entire league. When the NFL announces the All-Decade team for the 2010’s, write in Rob Gronkowski for the tight end spot in permanent marker.
With Gronkowski’s retirement on Sunday afternoon, the New England Patriots are now at a crossroads with the tight end position. No team has utilized tight end to the extent of the Patriots ever since Gronkowski was drafted 9 years ago. Now, their depth chart is razor thin.
Dwayne Allen was a serviceable veteran, but he has joined the Miami Dolphins in free agency. Left behind are Stephen Anderson and Jacob Hollister, neither of whom have starting-level ability. While the Patriots will likely bring in a veteran body (I'm looking at you, Martellus Bennett), they will almost certainly target the position in the NFL Draft in search of Gronkowski’s future successor.
No rookie tight end is going to have the impact of a Rob Gronkowski. In fact, you could draft tight ends for 10 years and likely still wouldn’t find one that makes the solo impact of Gronk. However, replacing him with an above average starter could keep the Patriots offense clicking, especially when the receiver core is in a bit of flux.
With that said, here are five tight end options for the Patriots in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Noah Fant, Iowa
There are few specimens who could live up to the all-around strength and athleticism combination of Rob Gronkowski. If any tight end from the 2019 NFL Draft class comes close, it’s Noah Fant. With a 4.50 second 40-yard dash and insane explosiveness for a tight end, Fant is a receiving nightmare for opposing defenses.
Fant grew as a blocker in 2018, showing more assertiveness at the point of attack and on double teams. The true impact of Gronkowski in 2018 came with his run blocking, and Fant is starting to ascend in that area of his game. However, the moment that Fant steps on to a football field he is going to be a mismatch for defenses to guard.
Fant is likely the first or second tight end that will be drafted, meaning he could very well be selected before New England’s 32nd pick. Luckily, New England is primed for a climb up the draft boards if necessary, with 12 draft picks in total. They might have to move up in order to secure Fant, but his ceiling could be worth the investment.
T.J. Hockenson, Iowa
Speaking of Iowa tight ends, T.J. Hockenson might just be the better prospect than Noah Fant. He is a dominating blocker who plays with physicality and will finish off defenders. While his play strength is his best trait, he offers unique ability with his body control as a receiver. More of a natural in-line operator than Fant, he could immediately step in to Gronkowski’s role and have a positive impact.
Hockenson has few weaknesses in his game, but I’d like to see him be more active as a route runner. Another excellent athlete for the position (85th percentile or better in the vertical jump, broad jump and short shuttle), he’s borderline the safest player in the entire draft class.
Hockenson could very well be selected before New England at pick 32, meaning a similar move up could be in store if they want to secure him. While I expect Fant to be the first tight end taken because of his ceiling, both will be in play for teams throughout the first round.
Irv Smith Jr., Alabama
Irv Smith Jr. is the first player that I fully expect to be available with New England’s first round pick, but that doesn’t mean he’s lesser of a prospect. Smith has a noticeable motor as a blocker, but is a bit more limited size and athleticism-wise compared to the Iowa boys. Despite that, he’s shown receiving potential up the seam and after the catch.
Smith has excellent bloodlines, as his father is a former first-round tight end who played in the NFL for seven seasons. On top of that, there is the connection between Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Bill Belichick being longtime friends. Smith could be available at pick 32, but his average performance at the NFL Scouting Combine could even see him fall to New England at pick 56.
Jace Sternberger, Texas A&M
Coming into the season, Jace Sternberger wasn’t even on the radar of NFL teams. After his 10 touchdowns season in the SEC, it’s safe to say he’s caught their attention. Sternberger mixes a fluid game with some juice up the seam, making him a natural receiving threat from in-line or in the slot. While he is a one-year wonder, he projects as a Mid-Day 2 pick with upside.
New England has picks 56, 64 and 74, which could ultimately be the perfect range for a player like Sternberger.
Dawson Knox, Ole Miss
Within the same range as Jace Sternberger will be Dawson Knox, the underutilized yet athletic tight end from Ole Miss. Playing in an offense with three future NFL receivers and a solid running game, Knox didn’t produce at the level of his counterparts. However, he showed potential when given opportunities. While this makes him more of a projection, he’s the better athlete than Sternberger or Smith.
Knox still has to prove his prowess as a redzone presence, and he’s currently a better blocker in space than in-line. Despite that, his smooth game and route running gives him a high enough ceiling to bank on in the middle of Day 2.