Never in a million years were the Patriots going to be able to adequately replace the greatest tight end to ever play the game in one off-season.
To their credit, they hardly bothered to even try and find someone to fill the Rob Gronkowski-sized void atop the depth chart. The lowered expectations are a good place to come to terms with the realization that things won’t quite be the same.
Somebody must play the position though. Now that the dust has settled from final roster cuts, New England is rolling into Week 1 with Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo at tight end, neither of whom has caught a pass from Tom Brady in the regular season. Naturally, Sunday’s opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers, are a team Gronk tortured like few others through the years.
Lance Kendricks, signed late in the off-season, is suspended for the first week of the season while Ben Watson, the former Patriot who came back to Foxboro in March, is suspended for the first four games.
Both Kendricks and Watson are representative NFL tight ends, something neither LaCosse nor Izzo have proven they can be yet, but it’s not like the cavalry is coming, either. Kendricks has been a workhorse since entering the NFL in 2011, missing only three of a possible 128 games over eight seasons with the Rams and Packers. Still, he’s caught 50 passes in a season just once and has never amassed more than 519 yards receiving.
Watson has had a very good career since leaving the Patriots following the 2009 season; if anything, he’s gotten better with age, catching a career-high 74 passes and maxing out at 825 yards receiving in 2015 with the Saints at age 35. He was quite serviceable even last season with a 35-catch, 400-yard campaign in New Orleans.
Watson, who turns 39 in December, is the oldest non-quarterback or kicker in the NFL. It’s a phenomenal story that he’s back with the Patriots, where he won a Super Bowl as a rookie in 2004, but it’s not the most inspiring way to spin things that he’s replacing Gronkowski – a player New England drafted, in part, to replace Watson once upon a time.
Tight end has been such an integral part of the offense in New England since Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez came into the fold in 2010. Since Hernandez was released in 2013, there’s been a search that never really ended to find a new tight end to pair with Gronk and create mismatches all over the field. How on earth can the Patriots effectively run two-tight end sets without so much one who’ll put the fear into opposing defenses?
During its four exhibition games, New England hardly seemed to put an emphasis on getting the tight ends involved in the passing game, regardless of who was under center. LaCosse’s 37 receiving yards in Week 1 were the highwater mark in August. In the all-important third preseason game, Izzo and Kendricks caught a single pass each; in the preseason finale, the since-released Eric Saubert caught the only pass by a Patriots tight end from Jarrett Stidham.
It’s the preseason, of course, and vanilla game plans are to be expected. Don’t forget how much Zach Sudfeld or Jacob Hollister, for example, popped in recent preseasons as the team tried to find that perfect post-Hernandez match for Gronkowski, though.
Don’t expect the tight end room to become a fatal flaw, of course. While New England needed Gronk to win the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl LIII, last year was the worst season of his career statistically (47 catches, 682 yards, three touchdowns).
The Patriots still have two of the best safety blankets imaginable for Tom Brady in Julian Edelman at wide receiver and James White out of the backfield, not to mention a much, much deeper group of pass catchers beyond Edelman compared to last year.
New England once completed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history sans Gronkowski. It somehow won three before he was even drafted.
Adaptability has been a hallmark for New England this century. To say it’ll be a work in progress would be quite the understatement, but odds are the Patriots will once again find a way to patch things together.