FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots knew it would be a challenge to fill the void created by Rob Gronkowski's retirement in 2019, but they couldn't have envisioned it would be this hard.
Patriots tight ends ranked last in the NFL in receptions and targets, according to research by ESPN's Stats & Information, and New England was tied with the Chicago Bears for the fewest receiving touchdowns from tight ends (two).
Limited production from the position was one factor in the Patriots' season ending earlier than it had in a decade, with a home loss in the AFC wild-card playoff round to the Tennessee Titans on Jan. 4. It highlights how tight end is a major priority for the team in 2020, which could mean anything from a run at potential free agents such as Hunter Henry (Los Angeles Chargers) and Austin Hooper (Atlanta Falcons) to targeting the position in the NFL draft.
If there was a silver lining to the abrupt end to the season, it's that coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had open dates to attend this year's Senior Bowl. While there isn't a tight end currently projected to be a first-round pick, Belichick and McDaniels had an up-close look at some of this year's best prospects.
What did they see?
Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, a former Patriots scout, breaks down the Senior Bowl tight ends, with some crossover at the fullback spot as well:
Jared Pinkney (Vanderbilt, 6-foot-4, 260 pounds): "If you go back and look at his numbers in 2018 [with 50 receptions, 774 receiving yards, a 15.5-yard average and seven TDs], he was a top producer in the SEC. But they lost [quarterback] Kyle Shurmur and consistent quarterback play, and his numbers suffered [20 catches for 233 yards and two TDs in 2019]. I told him coming into the week that I thought his situation was very similar to O.J. Howard when he was coming out of Alabama [in 2017]. O.J. ... went back to Bama and [quarterbacks] didn't target him much [in 2018]. With Jared, this is a talented guy with size to play on the line of scrimmage, he can be an effective in-line blocker, and he's shown what he can do in the pass game. He's not a super athlete, and I wouldn't expect him to be a combine star, but he's really fluid and he knows how to get open. Going into this process, over the summer, he was our No. 1-rated tight end."
Stephen Sullivan (LSU, 6-5, 229 pounds): "They listed him as a tight end, and also as a wideout. But really, he's a mismatch player. He is really, really fluid. For a guy his size, he can really run routes. He has a really generous catch radius; he can go up and get the football. I've equated him all along to [the Raiders'] Darren Waller ... coming out [of college], they are very similar prospects. He's a Day 3 player [Rounds 4-7], but with a creative coaching staff that can get guys mismatched, he's that type of player. He only had 12 catches [in 2019], but the benefit now is you can cut these [clips] up and sort it. When you looked at that cut-up, that's when you really got more excited about him."
Josiah Deguara (Cincinnati, 6-2⅜, 239 pounds): "We brought him in to play fullback as he has the right frame to line up in the backfield. He can get through the hole and strike people with good pad level. He's a good bender. He is similar to [West Virginia's] Trevon Wesco from last year's game. More athletic than Trevon, but not quite the same in-line blocker as an attached 'Y' [lined up next to a tackle] that Trevon was. But really similar in the sense that they are both scrappy, highly competitive, tough guys. They are the kind of guys you want on your team at some point -- Wesco went in the fourth last year -- because they play on special teams. [Deguara] can really, really run. He's going to be someone's starting fullback and you can do a lot with him in the pass game. He's a good route runner who has a really nice skill for setting up routes and getting open."
Harrison Bryant (Florida Atlantic, 6-4⅜, 240 pounds): "He was the Mackey Award winner [as the nation's top tight end], and is a really athletic guy. He's a little undersized, so he isn't the 6-5/6-6 on-the-line guy but he's athletic in space, so you can get him on the move and do things. He's scrappy. He's willing to block and ... he did a nice job Senior Bowl week in the run game -- better than people probably expected. But he won the Mackey because of his production as a receiver. Where you really get excited about him is after the catch. Even though he didn't run a lot of different routes at FAU, you knew he could do it because of his change-of-direction with the ball in his hands. He's going to be a playmaker in the pass game and he has a good enough feel."
Adam Trautman (Dayton, 6-4⅞, 256 pounds): "He's done nothing but climb and climb. He had a great week at the Senior Bowl. He went [to Dayton] as a quarterback and just kept growing. He has the measurables, is a crisp route runner, has good quickness. He has a basketball background, he can catch the ball over people. Adam was truly a man among boys at that level this year [70 catches for 916 yards and 14 TDs]. Then to come down to the Senior Bowl and show out like he did, he might be the first tight end taken. He's going to test well and he's a great kid. He's hungry. What he really showed [at the Senior Bowl] was what he can be as a blocker. Everyone knew what an athlete he was and what kind of player he was in the pass game, but here he is going against SEC-level guys, some really good ones in the game this year, and he just fought his tail off and got into people and showed a level of physicality and competitiveness. Someone is going to draft this guy to be their starter."
Brycen Hopkins (Purdue, 6-3¾, 238 pounds): "He's the son of [longtime Titans offensive lineman] Brad [Hopkins], NFL bloodlines. He's a phenomenal kid. Really bright. He had a big senior year statistically [61 catches, 830 yards, seven TDs]. He was going down to the wire with Harrison Bryant for being the most productive tight end in the country this year at the FBS level; Trautman was the most productive at the FCS level. Hopkins is a really good route runner. Hands were a little inconsistent on tape during the fall, but I thought he caught it really well Senior Bowl week and answered some of those questions. He's going to do a really nice job at the combine. He probably will be the best tester at the position. They didn't ask him to do a ton as a blocker at Purdue, so the physicality, that will be where he needs to make his biggest [jump]. But I think he will play on special teams and will have a role in sub packages early, because he can really run and is a mismatch."
Charlie Taumoepeau (Portland State, 6-2¾, 248 pounds): "We used him at fullback. He was kind of the favorite small-school guy of the West Coast area scouts in the fall. He really got our attention last year as a junior, in the two games they played up in competition against Oregon and Nevada. He really went off. He is a really fluid athlete who can run. A really natural catcher. He [shined] down here in Senior Bowl week and did a really nice job blocking -- even in pass pro. Charlie is another guy you can get production from in the pass game. He's a really smooth route runner and has quickness at the top of the break, so he can get open."
Sean McKeon (Michigan, 6-5, 248 pounds): "He was injured early in the week and didn't play in the game. Sean is a legit 'Y'-sized guy, which makes him a little different from some of the others. He has a nice, big frame. Good blocker. He can come in and be functional on the line of scrimmage pretty quickly. He's a really solid kid whose ceiling is probably as a really good No. 2. He's not the pass-game player that some of the others are. Hands were a little inconsistent at times, but he's a big target who runs well. He's tough, competitive. I don't know if McKeon will get drafted higher than the fifth [round], but ... it shouldn't be any lower than that for him."