IOWA CITY, IOWA- SEPTEMBER 22: Tight ends Noah Fant #87 and T.J. Hockenson #38 of the Iowa Hawkeyes celebrate a touchdown during the first half against the Wisconsin Badgers on September 22, 2018 at Kinnick Stadium, in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)

The 2019 New England Patriots will look a lot different than their 2019 counterparts. After nine fantastic seasons, superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski is going out on top. While conventional wisdom suggests the Patriots will try to grab Gronkowski’s heir in the 2019 NFL Draft, New England shouldn’t feel forced to reach for the position. The Patriots could certainly grab a tight end if the value is there, but replacing Rob Gronkowski isn’t as easy as selecting the best tight end of the board.

New England Patriots Don’t Have to Draft A Tight End Early

No Replacing Gronkowski

Trying to replace Rob Gronkowski is a futile effort simply because Gronkowski is the most talented tight end of all time. While some would debate he’s not the greatest due to a relatively short career, nobody can deny his impact on the field when fully healthy. Gronkowski was an unstoppable force in the passing game, finishing his career with 521 receptions for 7,861 yards and 79 touchdowns in just 115 games. Gronkowski’s 79 touchdowns since 2010 leads the league despite the fact that he missed 29 games to injury over that timeframe.

On top of his receiving prowess, Gronkowski was also one of the best blocking tight ends in the league. Gronkowski blocked better than some offensive linemen and could clear holes in the run game while also holding off edge rushers in the passing game. While players like Travis Kelce can come close to matching Gronkowski’s impact in the passing game, nobody is capable of matching Gronkowski’s all-around impact on the field.

New England has had other good tight ends throughout the years, but none have been able to replicate Gronkowski’s success when the big tight end was off the field. Aaron Hernandez obviously put up good numbers, but he was a dramatically different player than Gronkowski. When Gronkowski missed time with injury, the Patriots tried to use good-but-not-great players like Scott Chandler and Martellus Bennett to fill the void. Both players did their best, but neither could replicate Gronkowski’s impact on the field. Bennett had the better season of the two, but finished the year with just 22 receptions for 303 yards and four touchdowns in eight games without Gronkowski.

The 2019 Tight End Class

Nobody can fully replace Gronkowski, but an elite tight end could probably play a similar role. When looking at the 2019 tight ends, the only elite all-around tight end appears to be Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson. Hockenson is a fantastic all-around player capable of making impacts in the receiving and running game. Unfortunately, Hockenson is projected to be a top-10 selection and should be off the board long before New England is on the clock.

This leaves New England with Noah Fant, Irv Smith Jr., and Jace Sternberger as the top tight ends likely to be on the board. While each player would make New England a better team, all three have clear holes in their games. Fant’s a fantastic route runner and pass catcher, but he struggles with drops and is average (at best) as a blocker. Smith is similar to Martellus Bennett in that he’s good at a lot of things but isn’t great at one particular thing. Sternberger, meanwhile, is basically a poor mans’ Noah Fant. He’ll make plays in the passing game, but he’ll get overpowered as a blocker and doesn’t have Fant’s explosiveness with the ball in his hands.

Asking any of these players to try and fill Gronkowski’s void is asking for failure. Each guy is more than capable of contributing to an NFL roster, but they don’t have Hall of Fame potential. If they’re the best player on the board, New England shouldn’t hesitate to draft any of them. However, passing on a better prospect to fill a need at tight end would be a reckless decision.

Learning From History

Interestingly enough, the Patriots have already been down a similar road. After tearing up the league from 2007 to 2009, superstar wide receiver Randy Moss wore out his welcome early in the 2010 season. Moss was one of the best wide receivers in the history of football, and the Patriots faced a difficult task in trying to replace that generational talent.

Knowing that they could never find a player as good as Moss, they opted to change the offense rather than try to do the same thing with a weaker cast. The Patriots rebuilt their offense around a short passing game headlined by Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez. This didn’t stop New England from adding outside receivers (Chad Johnson, Brandon Lloyd, Brandon LaFell), but they were never brought in to be the focus of the offense.

New England is in a position to do the same thing again. The Patriots have one of the best run-blocking lines in the league and recently invested a first-round pick in Sony Michel. With Julian Edelman manning the underneath routes, New England has everything it needs to evolve into an elite ball-control offense. The current tight end duo of Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Matt LaCosse cannot replace Gronkowski, but they’re good enough to serve as role players in this type of offense.

None of this is to say that the Patriots shouldn’t try to upgrade the position. Fant, Smith Jr., and Sternberger can all play roles on New England’s offense and turn the Patriots into a more competitive team. However, the Patriots shouldn’t pass on more-talented players in order to fill a perceived need. New England’s tight end room is serviceable for what they’ll want to do on offense in 2019.

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