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There’s a Perfect Gronk Replacement in the Draft; Will the Patriots Come Up and Get Him?

The Patriots’ next starting tight end probably isn’t on the current roster, and the free-agent TE market is dry. However, there is a potential Gronk replacement among this year’s draft prospects. Will New England spend some of their draft capital to move up?

This is New England’s projected tight end depth chart in the wake of Rob Gronkowski’s retirement:

Matt LaCosse
Jacob Hollister
Stephen Anderson
Ryan Izzo

Izzo, a seventh-round pick for New England in 2018, is the only one who didn't go undrafted. Their combined career stats: 71 catches for 801 yards and three touchdowns. The Patriots’ next tight end is probably not currently on the roster, and the free-agent TE market has dried up, which means Gronk’s retirement is going to have a direct impact on the Patriots’ draft plans.

The draft does include a perfect replacement for Gronkowski, and in a perfect world the Patriots would be able to get their hands on him. Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson is the rare collegiate tight end who is both an athletic pass-catching threat and a physical—at times mauling—blocker. He has drawn comparisons to Gronk, and one scout I spoke to said those comparisons aren’t unrealistic. Right now, he’s not at Gronk’s level as a blocker, but he has the potential to get there. He isn’t as big as Gronk (Hockenson is 6' 5", 241 pounds compared to Gronk’s 6' 6", 265), but he’s close. He has reliable hands and is strong at the point of attack as a blocker.

The Patriots’ first pick of April's draft is No. 32, and one scout I spoke with said that there’s no way Hockenson will make it past the 17th pick. New England does have a wealth of picks to deal, with six selections between 32 and 101. But their picks are late in each round, and New England would probably have to package quite a few of them to make it to Hockenson—history suggests the they won’t make a move that high for one player.

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Still, could Hockenson be the exception? He has natural ties to New England. At Iowa he was coached by Kirk Ferentz, who was on Belichick’s Cleveland Browns staff and with whom Belichick has a good relationship. Iowa’s coaches have offered glowing reviews on Hockenson to NFL teams. There are two Hawkeyes on the Patriots’ current roster, including third-string center James Ferentz, Kirk’s son.

If New England can’t trade up to snag Hockenson, they could go after his Iowa teammate, Noah Fant. Fant isn’t the blocker that Hockenson is, but he might be the most athletic receiver in this year’s TE class. However, our Albert Breer reported last fall that Fant clashed with Iowa coaches at times.

Another option late in the first or early in the second would be Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. The son of the former Saints first-round tight end of the same name, he’s a well-rounded player who can contribute as a receiver or runner, though he doesn’t approach the kind of physical talent Gronkowski has. (Smith’s college coach, of course, also has a good relationship with Belichick.)

There is decent depth at tight end in this draft, and if New England chooses to use it’s first two picks (32 and 56) on defense they might still find a good option. San Jose State’s Josh Oliver, Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger, San Diego State’s Kahale Warring, Isaac Nauta of Georgia (New England’s new pipeline), and Dawson Knox of Ole Miss offer intriguing skillsets, but might not be ready to contribute immediately in the Patriots’ offense.

PRO DAY SLATE FOR TUESDAY: Campbell, Central Florida, Duke, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Iowa State, James Madison, Monmouth (N.J.), Morgan State, Northern Iowa, Richmond, Southeast Missouri, Texas A&M, Texas-San Antonio.

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