Following Rob Gronkowski’s announcement on Sunday that he is indeed retiring, the Patriots have a hole at the tight end position that the team might look to fill in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Gronkowski led the NFL with 79 touchdown receptions in nine seasons with New England, while his five seasons with 10 or more touchdowns was the most by a tight end in league history. He also played in 16 playoff games with 81 receptions for 1,163 yards and 12 touchdowns, all records for the position.
Now, the Patriots are faced with the task of finding Tom Brady his new tight end. Here’s a list of the draft’s top candidates best suited for the role next season:
T.J. Hockenson, Iowa
Hockenson is projected to be one of the first tight ends off the board after recording 49 receptions for 760 yards and six touchdowns in 2018 with Iowa, which has produced several NFL tight ends in recent years. At 6-feet-4-inches and 251 pounds, he has shown potential to be both an excellent receiver and blocker at the next level.
Noah Fant, Iowa
Another Hawkeye, Fant produced 39 receptions for 519 yards and seven touchdowns in 2018. An athletic weapon as a receiver, he has slightly less size than he Iowa counterpart, Hockenson. Fant has plus-speed for the position but must improve on his skills as a blocker to be successful in the NFL.
Irv Smith Jr., Alabama
Smith Jr.’s family is rich with football prowess. His father was a 1993 first-round pick out of Notre Dame by the New Orleans Saints, and his uncle, Edward Smith, played tight end with the Atlanta Falcons. Last season, the Alabama product caught 44 passes for 710 yards and seven touchdowns, displaying significant upside as a shifty route-runner in the NFL with good hands and speed.
Jace Sternberger, Texas A&M
Sternberger did not play in 2017 after transferring to Texas A&M from Kansas. However, he put up big numbers with the Aggies in his junior season, totaling 48 receptions for 832 yards and 10 touchdowns and should make for a strong tight end at the next level.
Dawson Knox, Ole Miss
Knox has flashed some serious receiving potential during his tenure with the Rebels. In 2018, he had 15 receptions for 284 yards, but his best season came as a sophomore when he recorded 24 receptions for 321 yards.
Caleb Wilson, UCLA
One of the most skilled tight ends on the board, Wilson was one of Josh Rosen’s favorite targets in 2017. Prior to a season-ending foot injury, Wilson had 38 receptions for 490 yards and one touchdown. He then followed it up with 60 catches for 965 yards and four touchdowns in 2018.
Kahale Warring, San Diego State
As a junior in 2018, Warring recorded 31 receptions for 372 yards and three touchdowns. Though several experts believe that he might have been better suited to return for his senior season, the San Diego State product could be an excellent mid-round pick based off of his potential alone.
Josh Oliver, San Jose State
Oliver is a terrific receiver that could present significant matchup problems at the next level. As a senior, he caught 56 passes for 709 yards and four touchdowns, which led to an invitation to the Senior Bowl. The Patriots could find some value here in a mid-round pick.
Tommy Sweeney, Boston College
Though Sweeney ran slowly at the NFL combine, some NFL scouts believe he has the intangibles to make up for his lack of speed at the professional level. In 2018, the BC Eagle had 32 receptions for 348 yards and three touchdowns. He has the size and strength to contribute as a high-quality NFL blocker and could prove to be a diamond in the rough in the later rounds.
Kaden Smith, Stanford
Stanford has produced a multitude of NFL tight ends in the past, and Smith might be the next. He was solid last season with 47 receptions for 635 yards and two touchdowns as a junior in 2018, so he decided to opt for the NFL Draft rather than returning to school.