ZMI ALPHA:Patriots Free Agency Preview: Examining Options for Pats at Tight End

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ZMI ALPHA:Patriots Free Agency Preview: Examining Options for Pats at Tight End

Since Rob Gronkowski stepped away from the team in 2019, the Patriots’ tight end corps is the least productive group in terms of receptions, yards, and touchdowns in the NFL.

New England knew it needed to turn the page at tight end and spend legitimate capital on the position, so Bill Belichick drafted Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene in the third round of last year’s draft.

Although the two second-year tight ends wouldn’t deter the Patriots from exploring the top of the free-agent tight end market, there’s internal optimism that Asiasi could be a starter in the future.

According to a team source, Asiasi’s progress down the stretch in his rookie season was promising. His ability to hold up as an in-line blocker was the first step coaches wanted to see and the belief is that Asiasi will continue to ascend as his confidence grows in the offense.

The source didn’t share the same optimism for Keene but speaking from the gut, hopefully, Keene transitions to more of a fullback role after he struggled as a traditional tight end.

The Pats will monitor Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith’s markets, but the expectation is those two will receive massive deals after neither was tagged by Tuesday’s deadline.

New England is also kicking the tires on several tight ends in the upcoming draft, which features five prospects that I currently have ranked ahead of my TE1 in the 2020 draft (Adam Trautman).

The Patriots will meet with at least three of those top prospects: Miami’s Brevin Jordan, Boston College’s Hunter Long, and Notre Dame’s Tommy Tremble, while likely top-ten pick Kyle Pitts and top 50 candidate Pat Freiermuth round out a very strong group.

With Asiasi’s progress and potentially another tight end coming in April’s draft, the Patriots could settle on one of the mid-level free agents that will provide a veteran presence.

Pats fits Jared Cook and Kyle Rudolph were already released due to the league-wide cap crunch and could be the 2010 Alge Crumpler to Asiasi and a draft pick.

Nobody is comparing anyone to Gronk or Aaron Hernandez (on the field). Still, Crumpler played an essential role during their rookie seasons’ that lessened the burden on two young tight ends.

Crumpler played over 53 percent of the snaps in 2010, more than Hernandez, and Gronk didn’t take over as the top tight end on the depth chart until the last month of the season.

Again, I wouldn’t rule out Henry or Smith for New England, but the direction I continuously get pointed in when talking to people around the league is that the Patriots are more interested in spending at wide receiver than tight end. Maybe that’s a smokescreen. We’ll see.

Nevertheless, we’ll rank all of the available tight ends and discuss their fits in New England’s offense below:

1. Hunter Henry, Projected Contract: $12 million APY

Henry checks all of the traditional boxes for an in-line tight end. He has size (6-5, 250) and box-out ability, a good initial burst off the line into his routes, a good feel for defeating zone coverage, in-line blocking ability, and his best work might be at the top of the route. Henry’s quickness at the break point allowed him to be a very effective route runner, which would fit nicely with the Patriots. He understands the nuances of attacking a defenders’ leverage in his stems to set up his breaks and accelerates through his breaks to create separation. Henry is a quick processor of coverage and works angled routes between the numbers with ease. With his big frame and movement skills, he’s a tough receiver to cover. My only hesitations here are obviously durability, and that Henry hasn’t developed into the elite tight end some thought he’d be after his first two seasons in the league. Bill Belichick’s noted admiration of Henry could lure the tight end here even though Henry said playing with a good quarterback is a priority. However, with a career-high 652 receiving yards in 2019, Henry is still searching for that elite-level production.

2. Jonnu Smith, Projected Contract: $9.5 million APY

I was tempted to go against the grain and move Smith above Henry, but Belichick’s affinity for Henry made that a difficult sell. The Hoodie loves him some Jonnu Smith, too, though, and so do I. Smith is exactly the type of free-agent signing you want; an ascending 25-year-old player with untapped potential that needs a featured role in an offense to unlock all his athletic gifts. If I were an offensive coordinator, I would pound the table for Smith over Henry because of his versatility and big-play ability. Smith’s 1.4 yards after catch over expected was third among all tight ends last year, and he’s a player that can line up anywhere from tailback, in-line, or detached from the formation in a wide receiver alignment. Smith is also a threat up the seam and had eight touchdowns last season, all in the red zone. Smith’s ceiling is more of an offensive weapon than a tight end, and that’s very tempting as a play-caller due to the various ways you can scheme him open. Plus, Smith can still handle all of the necessary blocking responsibilities, whether it’s as a hand-in-the-dirt player or blocking in space off the line. I would make a strong offer to Smith when free agency opens if I were the Pats’ GM.

3. Gerald Everett, Projected Contract: $7.25 million APY

Another athletic move tight end that is an ascending player in need of a larger role in the offense, Everett is the backup plan to Smith and Henry. In Sean McVay’s wide zone scheme, Everett was set up to use his gifts as a ball carrier nicely with the Rams and didn’t disappoint, averaging five yards after the catch in his career. He was used on routes into the flats but had a few opportunities up the seams as well. At 26 years old, Everett is reaching the stage of his career where tight ends usually start to take off production-wise. His skill set isn’t all that different than Smith’s, but Everett should come cheaper. There’s certainly some upside there, and even if Everett’s production doesn’t improve, he’d still be the best tight end on the roster immediately.

4. Robert Tonyan (RFA), Projected Contract: $7.5 million APY

The Packers have until March 17 to tender Tonyan, who will likely get the second-round tender next week. Still, Tonyan’s situation is worth monitoring after a breakout season a year ago. In Green Bay’s west coast scheme, Tonyan was a legitimate vertical threat. He paired good speed off the line with a more advanced release package than you’d expect for an undrafted tight end. Tonyan’s lateral agility allowed him to set up his vertical releases and get off press coverage, and all this added up to an insane 88.1 catch rate (52 catches on 59 targets). Tonyan is also a capable blocker with good functional strength. If the Packers get lazy with his RFA situation, the Patriots could pounce.

5. Jared Cook, Projected Contract: $5 million APY

Over the last two seasons, Cook has out-produced the Pats tight ends all by himself, and it’s not even close. Cook’s 16 receiving touchdowns over that span are tied for the second-most among tight ends, and the recently released veteran was nearly a Patriot in 2019. Cook might’ve signed with New England if he knew that Rob Gronkowski was not returning for the 2019 season but decided to go to New Orleans, where he was the guaranteed number one tight end. Cook is a dynamite pass-catcher on vertical routes using his size and speed to get up the seams and play above the rim. He’s got an enormous catch radius and knows how to use his body to box out at the catch point. Cook is more of a Darren Waller or Travis Kelce type than a traditional in-line option, but he’d bridge the gap for the young Pats’ tight ends and bring a boost to the passing game. He’d be my top option if the Patriots want to take a short-term approach at the position.

6. Kyle Rudolph, Projected Contract: $4.5 million APY

The Patriots had trade talks at multiple points over the last few seasons regarding Rudolph, who is now a free agent after Minnesota released him. There are higher-impact players in the passing game, there’s still some juice left, and Rudolph is a savvy vet that would bring a sense of professionalism to the tight end room. He blocks well, is a big target in the red zone, and won’t cost you much in terms of contract value or term. If the Patriots believe in Asiasi or love a tight end in this year’s draft, then Rudolph is their type of player that fits the Alge Crumpler comparison to a tee.

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