New England Patriots have no solutions at tight end

The New England Patriots are transitioning from having the greatest tight end in NFL history to having one of the weakest collections of talent at the position in the league.

The New England Patriots are transitioning at the tight end position. With the retirement of Rob Gronkowski, New England’s talent level at the position has fallen off a cliff. No one can reasonably expect the team to effectively replace the greatest TE in league history. It is, however, reasonable to have assumed the Patriots would have done more to address the position than they have to date.

This Offseason

While New England did try to land Jared Cook, Cook ultimately chose the New Orleans Saints. Ironically enough, this resulted in the Patriots filling Gronkowski’s void with the 2018 Saints tight end Ben Watson. Of course, Watson is also a former Patriot, as he spent his first six seasons in Foxborough.

In between the failed attempt to court Cook and signing Watson, New England brought in Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Additionally, the Patriots declined to draft a tight end. In a year where the Patriots showed a larger willingness to draft for need than is typically customary, it is a bit odd Bill Belichick completely ignored the position.

Now the team is left with two uninspiring receiving options at the position, along with their requisite allotment of blocking tight ends.

Ben Watson

Note: Ben Watson will be suspended for the first four games of 2019.

The 38-year-old is set to make his second stint with the Patriots in 2019. In 2018, Watson posted 400 yards and two touchdowns as a Saint. Even with the modest production, his production has been in decline. Watson exploded out of nowhere in 2015. That season saw him haul in 74 receptions, 825 yards, and six touchdowns.

Watson then tore his Achilles tendon and missed the 2016 season. 2017 saw him fall back to 61 receptions, 522 yards, and four touchdowns. Trading Drew Brees for Joe Flacco, coupled with a torn Achilles tendon, will have that effect. However, once back with Brees in 2018, Watson’s numbers continued to decline as outlined above.

It is fair to say this is a sign of age. Watson is from the same draft class as Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger. We think of those three quarterbacks as being in their twilight years, but capable of holding on as quarterbacks have a longer shelf life. Watson is their age but a TE.

There are some encouraging numbers from 2018 though. While his counting stats declined, Watson increased his yards per target by 2.1 yards from 2017 to 2018, and his yards per reception by 2.8 yards. He posted the same AV (5), and functionally the same catch percentage (~76.5%) as 2017. He also finished as the 16th highest graded TE by ProFootballFocus.

We all know where this is going. New England will selectively use Watson throughout the season, and he will do his job admirably. But this is a massive drop off from Gronkowski.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins

A very athletic former second-round pick, Seferian-Jenkins has not found much success in his NFL career. In five seasons Seferian-Jenkins has accumulated 116 receptions, 1,160 receiving yards, and 11 touchdowns. He has a career AV of 10, the same mark old man Watson has compiled over the past two seasons off a torn Achilles tendon.

There isn’t much else to talk about here. Would it be surprising if the Patriots are the team that finally unlocks Seferian-Jenkins potential? No, of course not. Transforming castoffs into productive contributors is what New England does. There isn’t much to point to in terms of optimism.

The one area where you can convince yourself Seferian-Jenkins will have an impact is in the red zone. The 6’5″, 262-pound giant sports 33 1/4″ arms and is built to be an end zone weapon. With Gronkowski gone, Tom Brady no longer has a “throw it up there for him,” threat down on the goal line. Seferian-Jenkins could step up here for New England.

If you really want to squint and talk yourself into Seferian-Jenkins, here is one more data point. In 2017, the only season in which he played more than nine games, Seferian-Jenkins averaged 2.9 yards of separation per route run, which was the same mark as Zach Ertz and Travis Kelce that year.

Overall

This is bleak, to say the least. The rest of the Patriots TE depth chart, for now, is Ryan Izzo, Stephen Anderson, and Matt LaCosse. This is in stark contrast to how spoiled New England was at tight end from 2010-2018. It would appear the team is trying to catch lightning in a bottle with either Watson or Seferian-Jenkins. No one should be surprised if they end up asking Demaryius Thomas to add 10 pounds and play tight end.

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