One of the draft's top candidates to fill that role is going under the knife. Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the 2013 Mackey Award winner as the nation's best tight end, had foot surgery last Friday to repair a stress fracture discovered at the NFL combine.
The eight week timeline for recovery will likely eliminate any possibility of Seferian-Jenkins working out for scouts. The injury was discovered just in time to prevent him from participating in tight end drills at the combine, and Washington's April 2 Pro Day is less than a month away.
While the Patriots would surely like to get a closer look at Seferian-Jenkins (Josh McDaniels met with him at the combine), this injury could push him down the draft board, possibly even into the second round. Seferian-Jenkins already had a red flag on his name thanks to a DUI last July that led to his being suspended for Washington's season opener. Adding the uncertainty of an injury could be too much for risk-averse GMs to consider him in the first round.
Despite this, getting surgery now is clearly the best move for ASJ's pro prospects. As Patriots fans are aware of thanks to Aaron Dobson, stress fractures can be notoriously tricky injures, especially when counting on the injury to heal on it's own with rest. Getting surgery now should nip the issue in the bud, and he should be physically ready to go by the time OTA's come around.
Playing with the injury in 2013 (he commented after the combine diagnosis that he "finally found out why my foot was hurting all year"), ASJ's receiving numbers dipped a bit, with his 36 catches for 450 yards and 8 touchdowns a far cry from the 69, 852, 7 line he put up in 2012. However, that was partly due to the Huskies newfound emphasis on the running game, where his much improved blocking playing a big role in running back Bishop Sankey's breakthrough year.
From a pure skillset perspective, Seferian-Jenkins might be the best fit for the Patriots needs. At 6'5" (although I've seen him listed as tall as 6'7"), 262 with long arms, ASJ possesses a Gronk-like frame, which he uses well to make contested catches over smaller defenders. He's a good route runner with excellent hands and body control, and used those skills particularly well in the red zone, where he caught 8 touchdowns last year despite playing with that stress fracture. While he's probably not quite as athletic as Eric Ebron or Jace Amaro, ASJ is no slouch of an athlete and is built more like a true tight end than either of them.
Essentially, ASJ is the closest thing to a Gronk in this draft, which is very important for the Patriots because they need someone to fill Gronk's role while he recovers from knee surgery. However, Seferian-Jenkins also possesses enough athleticism and route running ability to serve as a complement to Gronk if the team can get the two on the field together. While he wouldn't exactly fill the former role of Aaron Hernandez (the smaller, quicker Jace Amaro is a better comparison for that), the team could easily play him alongside Gronk, with the two playing a mixture of in-line and slot roles.
Here's hoping Seferian-Jenkins makes a speedy recovery. Here's also hoping that this injury pushes him closer to playing in a Patriots uniform next season.