8 tight ends the Patriots might draft to help replace Rob Gronkowski

Equipped with 12 draft picks, the Patriots could take multiple tight ends.

Irv Smith NFL draft Patriots
Irv Smith Jr. of Alabama looks to get past Nolan Turner of Clemson during the CFP National Championship on January 7, 2019. –Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Rob Gronkowski’s decision to retire from football left a correspondingly large – seemingly irreplaceable – hole in the Patriots’ current depth chart. Yet even before the 29-year-old officially called time on his NFL career, Bill Belichick was expected to add a tight end in the upcoming draft.

The Patriots enter the draft (which starts Thursday at 8 p.m.) tied with the Giants for most picks of any team (12). And while Belichick has made draft day trades every year during his time in New England except 2004, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Patriots could emerge from the weekend with 12 rookies.

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In fact, the last time the Patriots took a tight end before the fifth round, it was in a year (2010) when the team also made 12 picks (a crowded group that included Gronkowski).

It’s also possible that Belichick selects more than one tight end, given the success the team’s had in the past picking multiple players at the same position.

Here’s a list of eight tight ends the Patriots have reportedly met with during the pre-draft process, and a basic overview of each player, including highlights.

(All statistics are from the NFL scouting combine unless otherwise noted). 

Noah Fant

Size: 6 feet 4 inches, 249 pounds

40 yard dash: 4.5 seconds

3 cone drill: 6.81 seconds

Expected by many to be a mid-to-late first round pick, it would potentially complete a remarkable accomplishment for Iowa (Fant’s college team). The Hawkeyes are expected to see fellow tight end T.J. Hockenson go in the first round as well. Two tight ends from the same school going in the first round would be unprecedented in the draft’s history.

As a player, Fant was a consistent red zone threat (18 touchdowns in his final two years in college). His pass-catching ability is a leading asset, though he’s seen as needing to improve both his blocking and fighting through press coverage.

Irv Smith

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Size: 6 feet 2 inches, 242 pounds

40 yard dash: 4.63 seconds

3 cone drill: 7.32 seconds

The obvious Nick Saban-Belichick connection aside, the Patriots are currently being projected as most likely to take Smith over any other prospect with the 32nd pick.

NFL analyst Lance Zierlein coincidentally compared Smith to another tight end the Patriots once took with the 32nd pick: Ben Watson. While his comparatively smaller size for a tight end may deter the Patriots (who are trying to replace not only Gronkowski’s pass catching but in-line blocking ability), Smith would add a downfield threat. His 16.1 yards-per-catch in the 2018 college season are an element New England would welcome in the post-Gronk era.

Jace Sternberger

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Size: 6 feet 4 inches, 251 pounds

40 yard dash: 4.75 seconds

3 cone drill: 7.19 seconds

Like Smith, Sternberger put up impressive numbers in the SEC in 2018. He led Texas A&M in every receiving category, including yards-per-catch (17.3). Though his numbers at the combine didn’t set any records, he clearly has ability to contribute in the passing game. The area of his game that reportedly needs improvement is his blocking.

Kahale Warring

Size: 6 feet 5 inches, 252 pounds

40 yard dash: 4.67 seconds

3 cone drill: 7.21 seconds

Warring had a late start to the sport, notably joining high school football as a senior. Prior to that, he played a variety of sports, including water polo. Still, his combined size and speed make him an ideal project for a patient NFL team. His college numbers as a junior (31 catches for 372 yards and three touchdowns) offered a glimpse at his vast potential.

Based on his projected development, Warring is seen as a second or third round pick.

Tommy Sweeney

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Size: 6 feet 4 inches, 251 pounds

40 yard dash: 4.83 seconds

Seen as a mid-to-late round pick, Sweeney is a reliable pass-catcher even if he lacks elite speed and quickness. His 2018 numbers at Boston College (32 catches for 348 yards and three touchdowns) didn’t set any records, but were still good enough to rank near the top of his run-oriented team.

Isaac Nauta

Size: 6 feet 3 inches, 244 pounds

40 yard dash: 4.91 seconds

3 cone drille: 7.45 seconds

Projected to go in the fifth or sixth rounds of the draft, Nauta will certainly be available as an option if the Patriots want him. He had an up-and-down career at Georgia, where he won a few Freshman All-American distinctions from the media before dropping off as a sophomore. A modest bounce-back year as a junior (30 catches for 430 yards and three touchdowns) places him as a potential pick who could outperform his draft position.

Kaden Smith

Size: 6 feet 5 inches, 255 pounds

40 yard dash: 4.92 seconds

3 cone drill: 7.08 seconds

Seen as a day three draft pick, Smith has both the size and catching capacity to play in the NFL. He caught 47 passes for 635 yards and two touchdowns as a junior at Stanford, showcasing an ability to make difficult catches in traffic or at full extension. Drafting a Mackey Award finalist in the later rounds could potentially prove a steal for the Patriots.

Caleb Wilson

Size: 6 feet 4 inches, 240 pounds

40 yard dash: 4.56 seconds

3 cone drill: 7.2 seconds

Though he isn’t projected to necessarily get drafted, Wilson’s first interview at the combine was with the Patriots. And since New England owns four 7th round picks, it’s entirely possible that he’s selected by the defending champions in the draft’s final round.

It’s also worth noting that opinions on Wilson differ greatly, with some seeing him as a mid-round pick. His explosive time in the combine 40-yard dash (4.56 seconds) helped boost his stock. Still, his smaller size will inevitably raise concerns over his blocking ability.

One additional nugget about Wilson is that he was a high school quarterback in Mississippi and Georgia, which is the type of versatile trait that might get the attention of Belichick.