INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MARCH 02: Tight end Irv Smith Jr. of Alabama works out during day three of the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 2, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The New England Patriots are in the market for a tight end. With Rob Gronkowski’s future in jeopardy, the Patriots need to start looking at bringing in a potential replacement for the big tight end. Make no mistake, it’s impossible to replace everything Gronkowski brings to the field. However, they’ll need somebody to take up the mantle in New England’s offense, and that somebody should be Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. Smith Jr. may not be as explosive as a guy like Noah Fant, but when looking at the overall player, it’s clear to see that Smith is the better fit for New England’s offense.

Before we get too far into this, let’s start with a disclaimer. If the Patriots can find a way to get T.J. Hockenson without mortgaging their future draft stock, they should do it. Hockenson is the best tight end in this class by a comfortable margin. A capable pass-catcher and run blocker, Hockenson has the potential to develop into a top-five tight end. Unfortunately for New England, he’ll probably be a top-15 selection. New England could trade up if he falls into the 20’s, but for the sake of this exercise let’s assume Hockenson is long gone by the time New England is on the clock.

Irv Smith Jr. and Noah Fant are probably the second- and third-best tight ends in the class and both should be available with the 32nd overall pick. Both players have their own strengths and weaknesses, and both players would improve New England’s offense immediately. However, Smith’s skillset fits New England better than Fant’s.

Comparing The Two Tight Ends

Noah Fant is the better pass catcher, but Smith is still a dangerous weapon in the passing game. While he lacks Fant’s speed, Smith is still more than capable of breaking away from linebackers in man coverage. Additionally, Smith is a fantastic route runner capable of creating separation at all levels of the field. Fant offers more explosiveness, but both players are reliable, dependable weapons in the passing game.

While Fant may be the better pass catcher, Smith is clearly the better blocker. Smith could be the best run-blocking tight end in the entire class. Boasting perfect footwork, hand placement, and knowledge of how to open a run lane, Smith is capable of pushing and moving around just about anyone he’s asked to block. While he wasn’t asked to pass block all that often during his college days, he excelled at it in limited snaps. Given a whole off-season to hone the craft, Smith should be able to contribute as a blocker and a receiver from Day One.

Fant, meanwhile, is very much a work-in-progress as a blocker. As more of a flex player, Fant spends a lot of his time away from the traditional tight end slot. That said, defenders pushed him around when Fant lined up in the trenches. He can hold his own against smaller edge players but cannot match up against larger defensive ends. In the NFL, this will develop into a major problem in his game.

Overall Evaluation

Rob Gronkowski is the best all-around tight end of his time, and it’s impossible for any one player to completely replace him. That said, Irv Smith Jr. is a better fit for what the Patriots ask of their tight ends. While he doesn’t have Fant’s speed or explosiveness, Smith has the speed to beat linebackers and the crisp route running ability to get open against anyone.

While Fant is a marginally better receiver than Smith, Smith is a vastly superior blocker to Fant. Smith is an elite run-blocking tight end and can be just as good as a pass blocker. Fant, meanwhile, is more of a move tight end in the mold of Travis Kelce or Aaron Hernandez. While players like that obviously help an offense, they come with clear weaknesses in their game.

The Patriots ran the ball on 54.9% of snaps in 2018 and just invested a first-round pick in running back Sony Michel. New England clearly wants to run the ball and take pressure off of their soon-to-be 42-year old quarterback. New England values blocking at the tight end position more than perhaps any other team in the league, which makes Smith a perfect fit for New England.

Both Smith and Fant would make the Patriots better, and both players should have bright futures in the NFL. However, when looking for a potential replacement for Rob Gronkowski, Smith is the better fit for New England’s offense. His well-rounded playmaking ability fits New England’s offense and should improve New England’s running and passing game.

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