Friday, March 31, 2017

Patriots Should Be Looking For Tight Ends In Draft

With a name like Rob Gronkowski running routes, one would think that the New England Patriots would be all set on tight ends, particularly having just signed high-upside tight end Dwayne Allen to compliment the massively talented Gronkowski.

But they would be wrong.

Like it or not, Gronkowski's body has more holes in it than your typical voodoo doll, and Allen did very liitle in his first - and only - season as the man in Indianapolis, and was actually passed on the depth chart by undrafted free agent Jack Doyle, and dumped onto New England's roster for a fourth round draft pick, the Colts even sweetening the deal by adding on a sixth round draft pick of their own.
Ole MIss' move tight end Evan Engram

The only other options on the roster are Matt Lengel, who is used primarily as a blocker, and Rob Housler, who doesn't know what a block is - both one dimensional entities that probably will not make the 53 man roster coming out of training camp, leaving the monstrous-yet-fragile Gronkowski and the tantalizing-yet-unproductive Allen as the top two options.

Both are signed through 2019, but while Gronkowski is a real difference maker when he is healthy and on the field, Allen has only shown glimpses of his potential - and at 27 years old and entering his sixth season in the NFL, he needs to prove that he can be an integral part of the offense and not just a complimentary player whose best season was a 45 catch, 520 yard effort in his rookie year.

What's makes Allen's situation even more tenuous is the fact that he has no guaranteed money left on his contract after this season, meaning that the Patriots could dump him onto the free market or trade him after the season if he doesn't pan out, making the deal to bring him in a low risk proposition that cost New England a fourth round pick.

Though he has plenty of speed for the seam, the Colts used him primarily on the deep slant and short crosser to make it easier for him to break off his routes and show his numbers to quarterback Andrew Luck as a safety valve in the event Luck was chased from the pocket, which happened frequently - and rarely was he the first option in the pattern... some would say that he was miscast in an offense that had enough of a downfield element to take the top off of a defense, but didn't have the offensive line to protect the passer long enough to fit the ball down the seam or on the deep post.

Conversely,  the Patriots not only have the downfield element in Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell, but also the underneath game with Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and a stable of young pass catching greyhounds coming out of the backfield - and while the offensive line is still a work in progress, quarterback Tom Brady has the sharpest football mind and quickest release in all of football, and is able to set his protections and put his receivers in position to cause mismatches with defenders by simply yelling out a single word from the shotgun.

Notice how Gronkowski isn't even mentioned, as he takes a potent Patriots offense and makes them absolutely ridiculous - so Allen is in the right place to showcase his skills in a system designed to take advantage of a player's strengths and to mask their weaknesses by simple omission - not to mention that these players are so dangerous after the catch that they can open up the field for their teammates just by being on the field.

In short, if Allen doesn't produce at least to the level of his rookie season, the Patriots are going to be hard-pressed to pony up $5 million next season and $7 million in 2019 when they can theoretically get the same production from a younger player whose salary is dictated by a rookie cap.

So with the ambiguity surrounding both players, it would behoove Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick to seek out another option in the draft.

Impeding the progress of doing so is the fact that New England doesn't have a selection due in the first two rounds of the draft, which puts them out of the market for an "elite" prospect, but as Patriots' fans have seen time and again, players who fit in well with the Patriots are not always the elite talents in the top rounds - and even though the tight end class is talented and deep, every player at the position has a weakness to their game.

For example, Alabama's O.J. Howard has elite playmaking ability, yet is passive and doesn't display full effort if the play isn't designed for him, and blocking is an issue.  Miami's David Njoku may be the most complete tight end in the class, but gets alligator arms when crossing the seam and loses focus on the ball when tightly covered.

This is not to discount these top two specimens, but the Patriots are not in desperation where they need to spend top draft capital on a position where they can afford to draft a relative project in the middle or late rounds and bring him along in the the prominent shadow of Gronkowski.

Like most athletically gifted tight ends coming out of college, Virginia Tech's Bucky Hodges is in reality just a really big (6' 6" 260) wide receiver who has fantastic hands and terrific speed to bust the seam, but is relatively inexperienced at the position after making the transition from quarterback to tight end upon his arrival on campus.

The Hokies rarely asked him to be an inline blocker - nor did they center their offense around his massive skill set - but on the few occasions that they did he showed a competitive burst and nasty mean streak when sealing the edge.

A Jordan Reed clone, South Alabama's Gerald Everett  has the perfect combination of size (6' 3" 240) and speed (4.60) to attack the seam or sideline, but like all of the tight ends in the class, is a work in progress. An accomplished inline blocker, he is the kind of three-down dual threat as a "move" tight end that causes defenses to have to defend the entire field...

...while like-sized Evan Engram out of Ole Miss is even faster - a blazing 4.42 at the combine - and has elite short area quickness that is very difficult for safeties to handle, and impossible for linebackers.  He is considered a perfect Patriots due to his versatility, blocking prowess and an innate ability to get open in a phone booth.

Ashland University's Adam Shaheen (6' 6", 280) has the potential to be a dominating tight end on the professional level, just as he dominated small school competition.  A high school and college basketball player, he is surprisingly nimble in pass protection and in the pattern, and is a solid red zone threat - the marks against him are few, but include a need for better technique in run blocking and the obvious major jump from Division II to the professional game.

Jake Butt of Michigan is a solid all-around tight end who headlines a late-second day, early third day project list - a literal jack of all trades type, but truly a master of none.  He doesn't have the speed to separate from safeties and really isn't big enough (6' 5" 250) to dominate linebackers at the pro level, yet he seems to always be open underneath to move the chains...

...which is the same for similarly-sized Jeremy Sprinkle, who is a fearsome blocker with enough speed and route running skill to be a true combination tight end at the professional level.  Playing at Arkansas, he did his best work against some of the best defenses in the country and shouldn't need much more than a good strength and conditioning coach to coax a starting talent out of him.

At 6' 4" and 250 pounds, Iowa's George Kittle doesn't check the boxes for a good inline blocker, yet adds a physical dimension to a team's running game, and has plus-speed to develop into a seam buster.  Add Florida International's Jonnu Smith to that category as well - and even though Smith has decent size and plenty of speed for a "move" tight end, he has a compact body that works well as an inline blocker in a zone scheme, much like New England runs.

Late round prospects that could be nice draft and stash projects include Toledo's Michael Roberts, who is perhaps the best run blocker of the class and has been super productive in the red zone, and Clemson's Jordan Leggett has all of the tools to be a much higher selection, but his dedication to football in general, and his craft specifically, throw up some red flags.  To his credit, he seems to save his best for the brightest lights.

Sleepers that could surprise include Canadian Antony Auclair (Laval College) who does everything well but has been seen only against lower-level competition, along with Louisville's Cole Hikutini, who may be the most naturally talented pass catcher among move-tight ends, but offers little in early down blocking assignments.  Lightning fast pass catcher Darrell Daniels of Washington is a work in progress, but could contribute immediately in that role.

All told, the Patriots have a virtual plethora of tight ends to consider in the middle to late rounds of the draft who could contribute immediately and not waste a roster spot as a draft and stash entity - and last season all of New England saw what happens when the Patriots are afforded that luxury, as second-year defensive end Trey Flowers grew into an elite presence right before our eyes, and rookie wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell became a trusted option in a passing attack that already had so many.

There are other examples - from Edelman to James White to Duron Harmon - but you get the point, and as long as Belichick is able to maintain the formula that allows him to develop mid-round players like these, they will always have the talent on the roster ready to go in any circumstance.

That's how they win year in and year out - and 2017 isn't looking any different.

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