Patriots Draft Preview: Tight End

Vannett is an old school bruiser of a tight end. Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

With the NFL draft merely 2(!) days away, I'll be counting down the days with a positional review of each of the Patriots projected draft needs. Today, I'm back on the offensive side of the ball with a look at the tight end class.

Position: Tight end

Level of need:
Short-term: Low
Long-term: Intermediate

Positional overview:

The Patriots are set for 2016, as offseason addition Martellus Bennett is expected to form a dynamic duo with Rob Gronkowski. However, Bennett joins a long list of Patriots due to hit unrestricted free agency after the season, and it won't be surprising if he winds up cashing in somewhere else after one productive season in Foxboro. The rest of the depth chart consists of Michael Williams, who was somewhat disappointing as a run blocker in 2015 despite his size (6'6", 303) and background at tackle, veteran signing Clay Harbor and second year man AJ Darby, who spent his rookie season stashed on IR with an undisclosed injury. A former college quarterback who only converted to tight end as a senior at Arkansas, Darby is a bit of a project but he has big time athleticism and upside as a pass catcher.

That's solid depth, but an argument can be made for drafting a tight end if they believe that player could become a long-term compliment to Gronk. Given the amount of two TE sets they prefer to use, finding a consistent, dependable option to join Gronk on those sets would help the offense for years to come.

Out of reach:

Without a first round pick, the Pats can't realistically expect to land an elite prospect at any position. In a weak class of tight ends, the only prospect who's unlikely to be in their range is Arkansas' Hunter Henry, who could sneak into the back end of the first round. Even if Henry lasts into day two, he's unlikely to stay on the board long.

Nick Vannett: Ohio State

A lack of explosive athleticism has led Vannett to slide down some analysts' draft boards, but Vannett's well-rounded game makes him arguably the most pro ready prospect in this draft class. At 6'6" and 257 pounds, Vannett was used primarily as an effective in-line blocker, as the Buckeyes offense heavily featured Ezekiel Elliot on the ground. The biggest knock on Vannett is a glaring lack of speed (4.85 in the 40 yard dash) that will prevent him from ever becoming a dynamic mismatch creator in the passing game. However, he has reliable hands and a massive catch radius which should combine with solid route running to make him a steady possession option in the pros. Combine that with his ability as a blocker, which is already solid and figures to only improve with time in an NFL weight room, and you have a solid compliment to Gronk for years to come. It's possible that his lack of dynamic athleticism pushes Vannett into the Patriots range in the back of the third round, where he'd be a nice value. He seems to have piqued the Patriots interest, as they recently put him through a private workout.

Adams has seam-stretching upside
Jerell Adams: South Carolina

Adams is a bit of a projection at this point, but his long, lanky frame and above average athleticism combine to make him a prospect with tons of upside. Unlike Vannett, Adams has enough pure speed to threaten the seam, where he has a massive catch radius due to his height (6'5") and offensive tackle-esque 34 3/8" arms. He's also a threat after the catch who use a variety of jukes to average 6.9 YAC per catch as a college player. While the passing game upside is exciting, Adams is also a far better in-line blocker than his lanky 247 pound frame would suggest. PFF ranked him as one of the best run blocking tight ends in the draft class, and he figures to only get better in that department as he fills out and adds more muscle to his frame in the pros. The one knock on Adams has been his hands, which were inconsistent with the Gamecocks, but his upside and three down skillset could make him a nice prospect to develop as Gronk's future sidekick.

Austin Hooper: Stanford

Hooper becomes the latest in a long line of Cardinal tight ends to make the leap to the pros. Like Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz before him, Hooper is projected to go in the second round, likely as the second tight end off the board. That might be a little high for the Patriots to be addressing a lesser need, but Hooper is a rock-solid all around prospect with athletic upside. He was a solid run blocker in college (necessary for Stanford's run heavy offense) and projects to be a competitive blocker in the pros, although he could stand to add 10 pounds of muscle before being counted on as an in-line blocker. Like Adams, Hooper has enough speed to threaten the seams and run after the catch ability that would fit well in the Patriots short passing offense. Also like Adams, drops are the biggest knock on him, as his drop rate of nearly 11% was one of the highest in this draft class. Still, Hooper projects as a potential number one tight end who would make a great number two behind Gronk on the New England depth chart.

Devon Cajuste: Stanford

Cajuste was a wide receiver at Stanford, but his size (6'4", 234) and off-the-charts athleticism have many projecting him as an Aaron Hernandez style "move" tight end at the next level. Cajuste was a solid red zone target for the Cardinal, but the trait that has really jumped out to scouts is his quickness: not only was his 3 cone drill time of 6.49 seconds the fastest of this year's combine, but the fifth fastest time recorded amongst receivers this decade. That's an incredible time even before factoring in his size, which makes it downright freakish, and the Pats have traditionally valued the 3 cone drill as a test of the change-of-direction quickness needed to run the quick hitting routes their offense favors. With the right coaching, Cajuste could emerge as a major mismatch creator against linebackers and safeties, just as Hernandez was during his brief hayday with the Patriots. He'll be a very tempting high upside option if he falls into the Patriots range at the end of the third round, which is possible given the uncertainty about his future position. For whatever it's worth, Rotoworld reported earlier in the draft cycle that the Patriots were amongst the teams "heavily sniffing around" him.

Thomas Duarte: UCLA

Another candidate to become a pass catching "move" compliment to Gronk, Duarte's athleticism and pass catching upside has earned him various comparisons to Washington standout Jordan Reed. He certainly has the college production to back that up, as Duarte turned in an impressive 53 catch, 872 yard, 10 touchdown junior season last fall. He followed that up by knocking the athletic testing out of the park at the combine. Despite that, Duarte projects as a mid-round pick largely due to his lack of size. At 6'2" and just 231 pounds, he's currently a liability as a blocker, and most teams will want him to add at least 10 pounds to his frame if he's to stick at tight end at the next level. Still, his natural receiving ability will make him a mismatch against linebackers and some safeties right off the bat, and he could form a high upside pairing with Gronk for years to come.

Day three targets:

David Morgan: Texas-San Antonio

An old school in-line tight end, Morgan was the best run blocking tight end in this years draft class by a comfortable margin. At 6'4" and 262 pounds, Morgan has the size and strength (his 29 reps of 225 pounds on the bench topped many offensive linemen) to contribute on run downs early in his career. While he doesn't have the deep speed to be a dynamic pass catching threat, Morgan also has decent quickness (his 6.93 3 cone drill time was very impressive for his size) and is a crafty route runner with dependable hands and the toughness to hold onto the ball in traffic. His athletic limitations will likely push him well into day three, where he could be a tremendous value as a pro-ready blocking tight end. Morgan worked out for the Patriots earlier in the draft process.

Tyler Higbee: Western Kentuckey

An athletic prospect with pass catching upside, Higbee was gaining ground on many analysts' draft boards until his recent arrest for assault, public intoxication and evading police. Higbee allegedly punched a man at a bar who, according to Higbee, got into the personal space of himself and his girlfriend, leaving the victim with a brain hemmorhage. That incident combined with the lingering effects of a knee sprain have combined to push him into the late rounds, where he has the talent to become a steal if he keeps his nose clean. Higbee has the size and speed to be a mismatch for linebackers and safeties alike. He's a smooth route runner with sure hands and a monster after the catch. The Patriots will likely stay away due to their recent history with troubled players off the field, but Higbee's upside could make them think hard if he's still there in the sixth round.

Stephen Anderson: California

Another undersized "move" tight end prospect, the 6'2", 230 pound Anderson developed into a playmaker for Jared Goff over his final two seasons in Berkeley. Scouts worry about his ability to carry enough weight to accurately be considered a tight end, as his blocking is non-existant at this point. Still, Anderson has the quickness and hands to be a weapon in the passing game if utilized correctly, and that upside could be worth a later round pick. The Pats have put him through a private workout this spring.

Ben Braunecker: Harvard

The 6'3", 250 pound Braunecker absolutely dominated the competition he faced in the Ivy League and posted better than expected athletic testing numbers at the combine. The only question remains how he'll fare when facing much better (and most importantly, bigger) competition at the next level. Braunecker was a nasty run blocker in college, but he'll need to add more muscle before being utilized as an in-line blocker against pro defensive ends. He has the hands and route running ability to develop into a solid possession receiver, but it would be a stretch to describe him as a future "weapon" in the passing game. Still, Braunecker has the potential to develop into a solid all-around number two tight end, which would be a solid return on a later round pick.

Bryce Williams: East Carolina

Willams' size (6'6", 257) screams in-line blocker at first glance, but he actually showed more promise as a pass catcher in college. Williams has sneaky athleticism and a big catch radius which he uses well to pull in contested catches. He knows how to use his size as a receiver, which should come in handy in the red zone at the next level. He underwhelmed as a blocker in college, but has the size to improve dramatically with coaching and time in an NFL weight room. The Patriots have put him through a private workout this spring.