In advance of the April 26-28 draft, I'm taking a deep dive into potential Patriots' draft targets due to their fits in New England's scheme.
Today: Tight ends
Rob Gronkowski's future is going to have a monumental impact on the Patriots decision to draft a tight end and have, in turn, a trickle-down effect on the rest of the Patriots' draft. My feeling is, until I hear otherwise, to assume Gronk will be playing for the Patriots this fall. Even if Gronkowski returns, it's probably a good idea to begin preparing for the post-Gronk era.
The Patriots current depth chart is devoid of a young, developmental tight end talent with an all-around skillset. After Gronk, the Patriots have Dwayne Allen, who has one-year remaining on his contract, Will Tye (spare part), recently-signed Troy Niklas, and Jacob Hollister. Hollister showed flashes as a receiver during his rookie season, but he's nowhere close to being a complete tight end and may not even crack the 53-man roster this season.
The point here is that after Gronkowski, the Patriots do not have enough talent on the roster at tight end. They definitely do not have a player that can assume the No. 1 tight end role, especially as a playmaker if Gronkowski should suddenly retire. The question then becomes, will New England use one of their four early-round selections on the position and secondly, are there any tight end prospects worthy of being an early-round pick for the Patriots?
History tells us that Bill Belichick is not against drafting tight ends early in the draft. In 2002, he traded up to the 21st pick to select Colorado's Daniel Graham and in '04 (a year when they had two first-round picks) they selected Georgia's Benjamin Watson 32nd overall. Gronk himself was a top-50 selection in 2010, where the Patriots jumped up a few spots to select him with the 42nd pick.
In the Patriots scheme there are two types of tight ends. The "Y", who is the traditional inline tight end (Gronkowski's position). The Y has to be a strong blocker, possess size, physicality, athleticism, and toughness to handle the beating they'll take both in the run game and getting off the line as a receiver.
Then there is the "F" tight end, the Aaron Hernandez position. The Patriots can get by without a true F tight end by using slot receivers, another Y tight end here, or running backs, but having a real "F" tight end gives them more scheme flexibility and additional matchup advantages. The "F" tight end has to be versatile, a capable route runner, natural receiving skills, and above average NFL athleticism. Both positions require a high football IQ because these positions both have diverse blocking and receiving responsibilities.
Based on past precedent, it'd be unlikely for the Patriots to pick a true "F" tight end high in the draft. If they go tight end early, it's likely for a "Y" who possesses a complete tight end skillset both as a blocker and a receiver.
Do any of those players exist in this year's draft? Let's take a look.
Hayden Hurst, South Carolina (6-foot-5, 250 pounds, 4.67 in the 40-yards dash):