Whether or not the New England Patriots are able to replace Rob Gronkowski as an impact receiver at tight end will be one of the questions the team tries to answer through training camp and the preseason. The uncertainty may last well into the regular season too.
The Patriots go into training camp with several candidates to take over Gronkowski’s starting position. Ben Watson would have been the front-runner, but he’ll serve a four-game PED suspension to begin the season. Austin Seferian-Jenkins could also have played plenty of meaningful snaps, but he was released during minicamp after requesting a one-month personal leave.
But both veterans could end up splitting starting duties later in the season. Seferian-Jenkins’ personal leave should be finished by the time training camp begins on July 25 and the Patriots haven’t ruled out him returning. Watson should be a factor after he returns from his suspension.
Until then, however, Matt LaCosse brings 24 catches and 250 yards from the Denver Broncos. Stephen Anderson spent last season on the practice squad. Undrafted free agent Andrew Beck and Ryan Izzo, who spent last year on injured reserve, will also be in the mix.
Many NFL observers expected the Patriots to pursue a starting tight end in trade, with the Minnesota Vikings’ Kyle Rudolph looking like the most likely target. But Rudolph signed a four-year extension with the Vikings and cast doubt on such a trade happening when those rumors began.
New England did make a deal to acquire Michael Roberts from the Detroit Lions, but that trade was negated when Roberts failed a physical with the Patriots. The failed deal indicated that Bill Belichick wants as many eligible candidates to compete at tight end as he can get. Yet with a month to go before training camp, the Patriots may focus more on their in-house options.
Several possible Gronkowski replacements should still be available, however. That may be even truer as training camps progress throughout the NFL and teams decide that they have a surplus at certain positions.
One appealing possibility for New England would be Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Cameron Brate. Bleacher Report’s Brad Gagnon suggested him as a fit for the Patriots with O.J. Howard likely to win the starting job in Tampa Bay and Brate too talented to sit on the bench. Brate, soon to be 28, has 20 touchdown catches in the past three seasons.
While he’s not the overall receiving threat that Gronkowski was, Brate has shown himself to be an excellent target in the red zone. He could offer production outside the red zone as well, having compiled 1,251 receiving yards between 2016 and 2017.
Other options include the Rams’ Tyler Higbee, who could lose his starting position to Gerald Everett. He caught 24 passes for 292 yards and two touchdowns last season. Denver’s Jake Butt is coming off a torn left ACL injury (and twice tore the ACL in his right knee), and falls behind rookie Noah Fant and Jeff Heuerman on the Broncos’ depth chart. Before getting hurt, he notched eight receptions for 85 yards.
However, the Patriots may feel that the tight ends currently on their roster may be just as good, or certainly no worse, than whatever trade possibilities exist. LaCosse performed well in spring minicamp and appears to be the favorite going into training camp. He and Anderson may be enough, especially with Watson set to return four weeks. But if the coaching staff doesn’t like what they’re seeing, a move could still be made.
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