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Patriots Analysis

New England Needs to Address Tight End Situation

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New England Patriots tight end Hunter Henry (85) catches a touchdown pass as Pittsburgh Steelers safety Damontae Kazee (23) defends during the first half of an NFL football game on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Matt Freed)

The New England Patriots have gotten exceptional tight end play for decades. Russ Francis, Marv Cook, Ben Coates, and Rob Gronkowski all went to multiple Pro Bowls for the Patriots playing the position. But now New England finds itself sorely in need of help at the position. Their top four tight ends from 2023 are unresticted free agents. La’Michael Pettway, who has yet to play in an NFL game, is the lone tight end under contract with New England.

This is a problem for the Patriots that Eliot Wolf and company will need to figure out how to solve.

Alex Van Pelt

The Patriots new offensive coordinator has said he will shape his offense to fit the personnel. While that might be true, it is worth noting that Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku enjoyed great success in Van Pelt’s offense. The former first round pick improved every season he worked with Van Pelt. Last season Njoku had 81 receptions for 882 yards and six touchdowns. He was selected to his first Pro Bowl in his seventh season.

Tight ends coach Bob Bicknell has a plethora of NFL experience working with various aspects of the offense. Quarterback coach T.C. McCartney was Cleveland’s tight ends coach last year. Offensive assistant Ben McAdoo coached tight ends for six years in Green Bay. Needless to say, there is no reason this wont be featured position in the Patriots offense next season. They just need some players.

Hunter Henry

Bringing back free agent Hunter Henry makes the most sense. He is a very good football player and will likely not command the same type of contract he received from New England in 2021. At that time he was expected to make a lethal combination with Jonnu Smith, though that never panned out.

Henry was productive in spurts, but did go through periods of disappearing. In this instance, the player is not to blame. The offensive would inexplicably ignore him for stretches, then be successful when they went back to him. Just as people talked about Mac Jones having three different offensive coordinators in three seasons, so did Henry. He also had to deal with inconsistent quarterback play. Despite this, Henry averaged 44 receptions, 510 receiving yards, and six touchdowns during his three seasons in New England.

In additional to his production, Henry is a team leader. When head coach Jerod Mayo was discussing team leaders in his first interview after taking the job, he mentioned Deatrich Wise, Ja’Whaun Bentley, David Andrews, and Hunter Henry. The only member of that captains group not currently under contract is the tight end.

Mike Gesicki and Pharaoh Brown

Both Gesicki and Brown are unrestricted free agents as well. Last season was the only year with the New England Patriots for each. Gesicki was brought in to be a receiving tight end. He finished the season with 29 receptions for 244 yards and two touchdowns. Although he played in all 17 games, Gesicki was only on the field for 50% of offensive snaps.

Brown is a blocking tight end, though he made several solid plays in the passing game. He had 13 catches for 208 yards and a touchdown. He was a very solid blocker for New England. Matt Sokol, who appeared in three games for the Patriots, is also a free agent.

It is unclear if the new regime in New England will have the same preferences for the tight end position as Bill Belichick had. Last year’s squad featured an all-purpose player in Henry, a receiver in Gesicki, and a blocker in Brown. The plan for 2024 remains to be seen.

Outside Free Agents

If the New England Patriots opt to look elsewhere in free agency, there are three players who are capable of being key contributors. Dalton Schultz (Texans), Noah Fant (Seahawks), and Gerald Everett (Chargers) would all be desirable additions.

Schultz had 59 receptions for 635 yards and five touchdowns last season. It was his first year in Houston after spending his first five seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. Fant finished 2023 with 32 receptions for 414 and no scores. The former first round pick has been in Seattle the past two years after spending three years in Denver. He was part of the Russell Wilson deal. Everett caught 51 passes for 411 yards and three touchdowns last season. He previously spent time with the Rams and Seahawks.

Of the 46 NFL tight ends that qualified last season, the players above finished: Dalton Schultz (11, 72.8), Hunter Henry (15, 69.3), Gerald Everett (60, 65.6), Noah Fant (25, 62.9), and Mike Gesicki (37, 55.7). Pharoah Brown received a 73.3 but did not have enough targets to qualify.

NFL Draft

Brock Bowers from Georgia is the top tight end prospect in the draft. New England is unlikely to take a tight end third overall and Bowers will not be there when they pick again. Barring a trade, there is very little chance of Bowers becoming a Patriot.

Aside from Bowers, there are no certainties in the draft. There are some prospects with nice potential, but nobody else ready to be TE1 as a rookie.

The Tight End Plan

Bringing back Hunter Henry should be the priority. He is a team leader, which the New England Patriots decision-makers have stated is a priority. If there is not mutual interest in Henry returning to Foxboro, Dalton Schultz would be the alternative. While both Gerald Brown and Noah Fant appear to be a step down in quality, they are fallback options of neither Henry or Schultz were to sign.

Gesicki’s role should be filled by either a rookie or another veteran option (Fant, Everett, Jonnu Smith).

Finally, Pharaoh Brown should be back as well. He proved to be a valuable commodity in 2023 as a third tight end. He should be an inexpensive option for a blocking tight end.

Meanwhile La’Michael Pettway will have a chance to show what he can do in his first full tratining camp with the New England Patriots. Hopefully by then he wont be the team’s lone tight end.