FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Patriots tight end group was judged long before training camp started. From the outside, doubt likely started to creep in on March 24.
That’s when Rob Gronkowski retired.
At that point, two weeks after free agency began, the Patriots were running out of “sure bet” options. The best tight end on the open market, Jared Cook, spurned the Patriots’ advances and signed with New Orleans. After collecting a group of veterans via free agency, skipping the tight end position in the draft and dipping into the trade market, the depth of the Patriots tight end group is still unknown.
The Patriots have run into some bad luck with this position, but inside Gillette Stadium, players remain confident, even if everyone knows they’ll never truly replace No. 87.
“You can’t compare anybody to Gronk,” safety Devin McCourty said. “Yeah, listen, anybody that’s in the NFL is a good player. For years now, nine years, we had the opportunity (in practice) to go against Gronkowski, arguably the best tight end. In between, we had really good other players, (like) Marty Bennett. ... I think if you don’t go against big names in practice, everybody assumes, ‘Oh man, those guys aren’t getting any work.’ But at a point and time, none of us were household names, but everybody comes out here and works.”
The truth is the Patriots could use some luck.
This offseason, the Patriots signed veterans Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Lance Kendricks to go with Ryan Izzo, Stephen Anderson and undrafted rookie Andrew Beck. They also traded for Michael Roberts and, on Monday, traded for Eric Saubert.
What’s transpired since April has been chaotic.
Watson was suspended for four games for taking a banned substance while briefly retired. Seferian-Jenkins was released when he decided to step away from football to focus on his personal life. The trade for Roberts fell through when the veteran failed his physical.
In training camp, Kendricks suffered an injury that caused him to miss all of last week’s workouts and the first preseason game. He was back in a red non-contact jersey on Monday. LaCosse suffered an injury to his leg in last Thursday’s preseason-opening win over the Detroit Lions and was absent on Monday. Anderson also suffered an injury in Detroit and didn’t participate Monday.
When it comes to the group’s on-field play, the players seem happy with the work everyone’s put in.
“The whole group works hard,” Anderson said. “We have a diverse group. I think we’re skilled at a lot of different things. I think all together, it’s going to be a great mix.”
“We had a great group last year. We have a great group this year,” Izzo said. “A lot of vet guys. I think the room is really great.”
“I like our group,” Kendricks said. “We do a lot of different things well. I think we complement each other. I think the main thing is we support each other. We watch film, critique each other to make sure the end result is good.”
Prior to the injury, LaCosse was the most likely starter in the regular-season opener with Watson suspended. He even made two nice catches for 37 yards last week against Detroit. If his injury is serious enough for him to miss the start of the season, the Patriots might start with a pair like Kendricks, who has 249 career receptions, and Izzo, who’s more of a blocking tight end. It remains to be seen if Saubert or Anderson may factor in.
The Patriots have three more preseason games and four weeks until their regular-season opener at Gillette against the Pittsburgh Steelers to figure it all out. We’ll see if the picture gets any clearer by then.
“I think everybody on the field’s progressing,” Watson said. “Everybody is. This tight end group, all the groups. Our goal is to get better every day. Come out here, take what we do in the meeting room and take it to the field and definitely our group is getting better, but still have a long way to go. Good thing we’ve got a few more weeks.”