The tight end situation for the New England Patriots has been the cause of much speculation this off-season. Rob Gronkowski‘s cryptic comments to the media and his extended absences from team activities have led many to question whether or not the team’s superstar tight end will return in 2018. All signs point to Gronk’s impending return, affirmed by Robert Kraft in a recent interview, which makes the top of the Patriots tight end depth chart a little easier to project. Everything after the number one spot, however, looks to be competitive.
New England Patriots Tight End Depth Chart Not as Clear as Expected
In a League of His Own
Gronkowski is the clear top option at tight end going into the 2018 season. The man has been New England’s receiving yards leader for three of the last four seasons and has been one of Tom Brady‘s favorite options in the red zone for the better part of a decade. Gronkowski would be the number one tight end on any team’s roster this season, and there is no reason for him to lose his crown atop the depth chart in New England.
This may come as a surprise to some, but Dwayne Allen actually played tight end for the Patriots last year, despite what his stat line says. In Allen’s defense, he works better as a blocker than a pass-catching tight end. This is a skill the Patriots will demand from Allen in 2018 as the offensive line tries to regain its composure. Allen appears to be the de facto second option at tight end because of his blocking ability, six years of experience on NFL teams, and his familiarity with the Patriots playbook.
However, the Patriots signed undrafted free agent Jacob Hollister after the 2017 NFL Draft. Hollister was a solid enough college football player at Wyoming, and his 2017 preseason numbers were better than Gronkowski’s during his rookie preseason. The Patriots brass obviously see some promise in Hollister, despite the limited action he saw during the regular season. If Hollister can improve dramatically during the 2018 off-season, he may have a chance to knock off an ineffective (or possibly misused) Allen at number two.
Unfortunately for Hollister, his improvement will have to be dramatic and immediately apparent when the regular season begins if he wants to knock Allen down a peg. As such, Hollister would probably stick as the third option on the Patriots tight end depth chart, especially given his demonstrated ability to contribute on special teams.
But the Patriots also introduced Troy Niklas into the mix this off-season. Niklas is an interesting pick-up for New England. He was drafted in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals because of his size and run-after-catch prowess. In fact, he was even on the Patriots draft radar as a potential second-round pick. (The Patriots wound up taking quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo instead.)
Niklas has been plagued with injuries since he entered the league, having had six injury-related surgeries since 2014. These injuries have hampered his development and make his fifth-year prospects appear closer to those of a third-year player.
Hollister and Niklas are both solid options for the third spot on the depth chart. Niklas has more experience than Hollister on the field and demonstrates pass-catching potential on tape. This may give Niklas the edge for the number three spot here and may even bring Niklas into the conversation for number two if he can improve his blocking abilities.
Camp and Competition Fodder
The Patriots drafted Ryan Izzo out of Florida State in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft. The seventh round seemed a little late, given that the Patriots do not seem to have a clear successor for Gronkowski. Izzo seemed almost an afterthought and is not likely to make the 53-man roster. The Patriots also have Will Tye and Shane Wimann on the roster for now. Tye has spent the last three seasons on the New York Giants and New York Jets rosters, doing very little for both teams. Wimann is an undrafted free agent signing for the Patriots and, frankly, does not look too promising. Wimann and Tye would have to beat out Izzo for a place on the ballot, and their chances to defeat an incumbent Hollister and a barely-promising Niklas for a spot on the final roster are slim to none.
Last Word on the Tight End Depth Chart
- Rob Gronkowski
- Dwayne Allen
- Troy Niklas
- Jacob Hollister
Fullback James Develin also has a tendency to find himself on the Patriots tight end depth chart as a last-ditch emergency option and will likely appear as such at some point this season. In this depth chart, Niklas is given the edge over Hollister because of his pass-catching ability. Pass-catching is a vital skill for Patriots tight ends, and New England will be looking for a successor to Gronkowski’s throne this season.