What does Rob Gronkowski's retirement mean for T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant?
Did Rob Gronkowski just spike the New England Patriots' offseason plans?
In announcing his retirement Sunday evening, the four-time all-pro selection walks away from the NFL as arguably the greatest tight end in league history. But he also leaves the Patriots' offense with a hole even bigger than his 6-6 frame.
Sure, Gronkowski battled a litany of injuries last season and posted his lowest yards per game (52.5) since his rookie season. But the nine-year veteran confounded defenses even in the final stretch of his career with a seemingly singular ability to create mismatches. Look no further than his critical catches late in the AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs and key grab in the Super Bowl LIII win over the Los Angeles Rams for evidence of how much he still spent to the passing game. And even as his receiving numbers waned in 2018, he still frequently could be found mowing down defenders in the run game.
Now, with the NFL draft just a month away, the Patriots need to find a suitable successor.
Multiple reports indicated the team made a strong push for Pro Bowl pass catcher Jared Cook, who is expected to sign with the New Orleans Saints, so New England likely isn't satisfied with taking a flier on Matt LaCosse as its lone offseason move at tight end. But the free agency options have mostly dried up. Instead, Bill Belichick and Co. might be inclined to use one (or more) of their league-high 12 picks in the 2019 NFL draft to address the void.
Replacing Gronkowski's production, let alone his overall impact, might be an impossible task for a rookie, but these seven prospects could be the Patriots' best options come April:
1. T.J. Hockenson, Iowa: It's only natural to start this list with the pre-eminent prospect at tight end in this class. Given his receiving skills, athleticism and blocking ability, the Mackey Award winner might be the closest approximation of Gronkowski's skill set that one could hope for from a draft prospect in a given year. But would New England be willing to trade as high as into the top 10 to land him?
2. Noah Fant, Iowa: Though he lacks the rugged blocking prowess and sheer strength of his former teammate Hockenson, Fant might be the more dynamic target of the two. Like Gronkowski, he can thrive by creating mismatches when flexed out wide, as he can overwhelm smaller defensive backs with his 6-4, 249-pound frame and 39 1/2-inch vertical or race past linebackers with his speed (4.50-second 40-yard dash). But much like the franchise likely would have to do to land Hockenson, New England might need to move up in the first round to ensure a shot at Fant.
3. Irv Smith, Alabama: At 6-2 and 242 pounds, Smith might have been written off as an H-back in an earlier era. But while he doesn't have the explosiveness of Hockenson and Fant, his overall fluidity and savvy as a pass catcher at every level should make him a consistent threat. Plus, he's no slouch as a blocker. He should be within the Patriots' range in either the late first or second round.
4. Jace Sternberger, Texas A&M: If New England opts to use one of its five picks in the second or third rounds on a tight end, Sternberger might be a sensible target. He's at his best when stretching the field vertically, though his overall athleticism is a step behind the players who rank above him on this list. Like Smith, he seems especially suited for a New England attack that would move him around often.
5. Dawson Knox, Ole Miss: Overlooked in a passing attack that more heavily featured top receivers D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown, Knox should be in line for a more prolific output in the pros after catching just 15 passes for 284 yards last year. With easy speed down the seam and a comfort corralling passes outside his frame, he could become a dangerous deep threat. Still, his adjustment period might be more extensive than that of many of his peers.
6. Josh Oliver, San Jose State: Perhaps more of a complementary piece and long-term investment, Oliver nonetheless could be a valuable developmental player for New England later on in the draft. Though he has a knack for attacking the ball in the air, his struggles in combating stronger defenders, especially as a blocker, could limit his usage in the early going.
7. Kahale Warring, San Diego State: As a former multi-sport star in high school who only played one year of football before walking on with the Aztecs, Warring has several intriguing traits as a Day 3 sleeper. Whether posting up for a contested catch, accelerating out of his breaks or mixing it up as a run blocker, he displays tools that should make him an ascendant prospect among teams patient enough to work on refining his game.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.