As a reminder, the New England Patriots have their first round (29), second round, third round, fourth round, their sixth round, Philly’s sixth round, and their seventh round picks.
State of the Position:
Let’s all take a moment to sigh wistfully.
Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were the most deadly TE combo, potentially, in NFL history, perfectly balanced with each other to dissect defenses ill-equipped to handle them one-on-one. Now, after a 2013 season where Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan were the regular starters at tight end, and Gronk only played 7 games, the position is at it’s bleakest.
Hoomanawanui and Mulligan definitely performed well, especially in the blocking game, but neither are exactly receiving threats (though Hooman’s one handed grab against the Dolphins was a season highlight). Gronkowski is that game-changing receiver if he’s healthy, but that “if” has gotten bigger and scarier as the years have passed. Of course the latest season-ending injury to his ACL/MCL was a freak one, and there’s no reason to worry about any reoccurring worries. But the amount of damage just to his body in general that Gronkowski has suffered so young in his career has to give the Patriots pause. Again, over the course of a full season, Gronkowski is the top tight end in the NFL. But that full season can no longer be treated as a certainty.
What the Team is Looking For:
Any tight end with upside. The preferable prospect is a “move” tight end akin to Hernandez, someone with the athleticism to win in space, sharp route-running, and good hands. Zach Sudfeld was the right idea, but his few drops cost him his spot on the roster.
Obviously, elite “move” tight ends don’t grow on trees, though there are some intriguing prospects in that vein in the 2014 class. The Patriots would also be fine with a more typical in-line blocking tight end with good hands. Even if he’s not the best counterpart to Gronkowski, two Gronks is still a helluva a pair to defend.
But at this point, any pass-catching tight end will do.
And oh boy, is there some talent. Depending on who you ask, there are 2-4 top flight, first round prospects at tight end. But the class is far from top heavy, as there are several draft-worthy players even in the later rounds. So many, that I’m gonna talk about seven players instead of the usual five. Alright here we go…
In-Case-He-Slips: Eric Ebron, North Carolina
The prize of the 2014 tight end class is the North Carolina Tar Heel.
The 6’4, 245 Ebron is an insane athlete, the comparisons to a Vernon Davis type completely justified. He has the speed to blow by linebackers and the size to overwhelm corners/safeties. He’s a nuisance in the open field, plays confident, and has a gigantic catch radius. He’s not the greatest run blocker, and wasn’t used in-line much in college, but is as good a “move” prospect as there is. As good as he was college, Ebron hasn’t even scraped his potential yet, and would be a prize for a team willing to wait through the slight bumps that will inevitably come in his rookie year. It seems impossible that Ebron would slip to 29, but he could be a potential target for Belichick to trade up for if he was so inclined.
1st Round: Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
Held in only slightly less regard is Texas Tech tight end, Jace Amaro. While he doesn’t have the same explosive athleticism as Ebron, he still has surprising speed for his 6-6, 260 frame.
Amaro broke the NCAA all-time receiving yards record this past season with 1,352 yards, including six 100-yard-plus receiving games. He has great footwork and is a strong route-runner, using his speed and power to break tackles in the open field. Amaro was used primarily in the slot at Texas Tech, which will undoubtedly scare off some teams looking for a more typical in-line end, as will some character issues that plagued him in college. But the Patriots have their typical in-line end. What they’re looking for is a walking matchup-nightmare who can make plays in the open field, a need that Amaro would fill in spades.
1st-2nd Round: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington
Once touted as the top tight end prospect in the draft class, Seferian-Jenkins’ stock has dropped after being charged with a DUI in March, and his production dipped his junior year (while Ebron and Amaro both had huge year sin that department). But Seferian-Jenkins would still be a huge find for a team needing a tight end.
He’s not the same dynamic playmaker that Ebron and Amaro are, but there may not be a more sure-handed tight end in the draft. Seferian-Jenkins is an elite security blanket type of tight end, using his enormous 6-7, 270 frame to present a massive target for a tight end. He runs routes exceedingly well, has terrific hands, and is a tough blocker. He doesn’t have the same top-line speed to be used prolifically down the speed, but should dominate over the middle. He is more the Gronk type, but pairing the two could be fun watch, as well as giving the Pats an easy replacement should his injury concerns persist.
2nd-Round: Troy Niklas, Notre Dame
Niklas has crashed the 2014 Draft party a little late, shocking scouts by deciding to skip his senior year, especially as he’s relatively inexperienced at the tight end position. But Niklas still impressed with his 2013 season, with 32 receptions for 498 yards and 5 TD, in his lone starting season after acting as Tyler Eifert’s understudy.
Niklas is definitely a raw prospect, needing to work on his catching consistency and route running, but his 6’7, 270 build and above average athleticism have the league’s attention. He’s another matchup problem for defenses, quick enough to beat linebackers and strong enough to overpower defensive backs. He clearly relishes the blocking game and can be devastatingly effective in-line, though he sometimes is over-eager and lunges a bit too much into his blocks. As tantalizing as his upside is, some teams may not feel comfortable plugging him in as their top tight end. But the Patriots can afford to wait, and having him learn from Gronkowski would be a huge boon.
3rd-4th Round: C.J. Fiederowicz, Iowa
Fiederowicz is the most typical, block-first, hand-in-the-dirt tight end in the draft. In a league that’s moving more and more towards a hybrid tight end, the former Hawkeye may find himself falling down draft boards. The 6’6, 262 Fiederowicz will never blow away teams, but is as steady a player as they come. He has good hands, runs routes well, blocks effectively. But he’s a not an earth-shattering athlete by any means. He had 30 receptions for 299 yards and six TDs in his final year, and finished his career with a 31-game consecutive catch streak. Fiederowicz’ closest NFL-comparison is Gronkowski, meaning the Patriots may rather look elsewhere for a prospect to put next to him. But, if the Patriots were to spend a higher pick on a wide receiver, and are truly committed to giving Brady as many security blankets as possible, then Fiederowicz would be a sure-handed receiver and bona fide red zone threat.
5th-6th Round: Jordan Najvar, Baylor
If Jordan Najvar had just announced for the draft, and then hid in a cave until draft day, he might not even have been drafted, after a college season at Baylor in which he only had 10 receptions, used almost solely as a blocker. But then he had to go ruin it and be one of the standout players in the East-West Shrine game, almost certainly rising steadily up draft boards. At Baylor, he was rarely used because of the nature of the offense, but at practices for the Shrine game, he greatly impressed scouts with his athleticism and some beautiful catches both over his head and away from the body. He moves smoothly for a man his size (6’6, 262), and may be a worthy consolation prize for a team who misses out on Ebron or Amaro, and would be a dynamite match next to Gronkowski.
7th Round – UFA: Colt Lyerla, Oregon
Yes, I can hear you groaning through the internet. But hear me out.
Based just on his on-the-field talent alone, Lyerla might be a Top-5 tight end in the 2014 draft class. He is a physical monster, with incredible athleticism, great hands, and the strength and speed to shed would-be tacklers. He’s a solid blocker, can play in a variety of different schemes, and plays tough and mean. If had played his senior year at Oregon, he probably would have been, at the very least, a second-round pick in 2015. However, as you know, he left the Oregon team mid-season and was soon thereafter arrested for cocaine possession. The consensus among scouts seems to be that he’s got the talent of a Pro-Bowl player but might never make it to the NFL because of his character issues. There have obviously been success stories in that regard of late (Vontaze Burfict, Tyrann Mathieu, Alfonzo Dennard), but one huge story that has cast a shadow on any player marked with “character problems” in the draft (Aaron Hernandez). It will all come down to the interview process, I suspect. If Lyerla is both candid and apologetic about his behavior, teams may be willing to give him a try. If not, he won’t be drafted. Either way, Bill Belichick will give him a fair shake, as Lyerla could be the perfect fit next to Gronkowski.
On Monday, check back here for my first 7-round Patriots mock draft.
Be sure to check my Twitter (@isportspeters) for more of this draft preview, as well as more Red Sox/Patriots/Celtics articles. As always, if there are any players who you think should be included here, drop me a line on Twitter or at firstname.lastname@example.org.