With the NFL Draft beginning on Thursday, it is time to take a look at the potential targets that could be added to the Patriots’ roster this upcoming weekend. New England has seen many departures via free agency, but they also have a large number of second-year players returning that were either injured or on the bench in 2018. These same players are going to get a chance to compete for playing time, so before getting all amped up about New England potentially drafting 12 players, it is important to remember that only 53 make the team. There will be trades this weekend, and they may be significant (QB Josh Rosen?).
One area New England will focus on is tight end, and this is a good year to try to find a replacement for recently retired Rob Gronkowski. He is impossible to replace, but there is no doubt New England could help Brady out by finding him some strong tight ends. The top two tight ends both hail from Iowa and they are different types of players. T.J. Hockenson, who is just a junior, is the consensus top tight end in the draft. Not only does he have strong pass-catching ability, but he can also block very well. He may be selected in the top ten.
The second Iowa star tight end is Noah Fant; Fant is more of a pass catcher than a blocker, but his upside is unquestionable, and he will also most likely be gone before New England is on the board, assuming they don’t trade up. These aren’t the only talented tight ends in this draft, and the one they may have their eyes on is a disciple of Nick Saban, Belichick’s buddy.
Irv Smith Jr., a talented tight end out of Alabama, maybe the man the Patriots are looking for to take over the tight end position for the next, I don’t know…decade? That is always the goal with high-end draft picks, and Smith would likely be taken at 32 or early in the second round. Smith isn’t getting the love that the Iowa duo is getting, but he showed at Alabama that he had some serious ability, and he did it facing SEC defenses, defenses that are typically loaded with future NFL stars.
Smith’s father was a first round pick in 1993 out of Notre Dame, and his uncle, Ed Smith, played tight end in the NFL from 1996-1999. The bloodline is there, and that also eliminates some of the issues with getting comfortable in an NFL environment, which gives Smith Jr. has an advantage.
Smith Jr. played his high school days at Brother Martin High School in Louisiana, and it is no surprise he is projected to be selected within the first two rounds. Before selecting Alabama, he was recruited by a staggering 28 schools, with 27 offering him scholarships. Oddly enough, the one school that didn’t make him an offer was Notre Dame, the team his father starred for in the early-90’s. Smith Jr. ultimately chose Alabama over Texas A&M and Texas.
Smith Jr. was on the field as a freshman, but he didn’t record any receptions or statistics; he was on special teams. His sophomore year was better, but he still didn’t out up numbers that jumped out. He finished with 14 catches, 128 yards, and three touchdowns. Again, those are not eye-popping numbers, but the Alabama passing game was a mess at the time, so it was hard to gauge his 2017 season based off of stats alone.
In 2018, Smith Jr. finally had his breakout season, which was a surprise to no one. In 15 games, Smith finished with 44 catches for 710 yards and seven touchdowns. With the focus switching to the passing game, Smith Jr. flourished. Considering last year was the first time he has been given a real opportunity to produce at a big-time school facing a very difficult schedule, there is a good chance that he has room for growth in the NFL.
Smith, who is listed at 6’2, 242 pounds, is not the physical freak that Rob Gronkowski or even the late Aaron Hernandez was, but he is very fluid, moves well and is almost impossible for linebackers to cover. Smith can also fill the H-back or fullback role, and his blocking has gotten better every year. Smith has good timing and good handwork in his blocking, which shows he’ll be able to be a complete tight end in the NFL.
He isn’t the physical specimen that O.J. Howard is, the last Alabama tight end to go early, but he absolutely has Pro Bowl potential. If New England doesn’t take him at 32 but they do have interest, they may have to move up to the top of the second round to make it happen.
-Christopher Simoneau is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the NFL and the New England Patriots. Follow Chris on Twitter @chris_simoneau.