State of the Patriots: Tight end

As the NFL offseason heads toward free agency and the draft, all 32 teams must assess their own talent before they begin anew the roster-building process. With that in mind, is taking a position-by-position look at the state of the Patriots roster.

Tight end

Returning players: Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo

Free agents: Ben Watson

2019 recap: When Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement last March and Jared Cook spurned the Patriots for the Saints, the writing was on the wall for the New England tight end position. Things didn’t work out with Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Ben Watson was suspended to open his second stint in Foxborough and even cut for a short time upon his return. Newcomer Matt LaCosse battled injury. Second-year seventh-round pick Ryan Izzo was a non-factor at a position that went from a former New England strength to a hole in the offense. The entire tight end depth chart combined for a mere 37 catches for 419 yards and two touchdowns, led by Watson’s 17 catches for 173 yards. The group also failed in its work blocking. It was a far cry from the days of Gronk’s domination. It was also one of the many factors that led to a lackluster season for the offense as whole and for Tom Brady.

2020 projection: Without major changes in personnel, the outlook for this coming season wouldn’t be much different than a year ago. In fact, with Watson out of the mix and likely retired the cupboard is even barer. Maybe LaCosse can be more productive if he can get and stay healthy, but that’s no guarantee for a guy who’ll turn 28 this fall and has just 40 catches over four NFL seasons with three teams. Izzo may simply be what he is at this point, a depth piece at best. There just isn’t much room for high-end optimism regarding the returning tight end talent.

Draft/free agency need – High: Aside from the whole Brady Watch thing, tight end is the Patriots biggest need heading into the offseason. The position requires an injection of talent and is worthy of being targeted both in free agency and the draft. The free agent class could offer high-end options like Hunter Henry, Austin Hooper and Eric Ebron. The draft class isn’t as strong as it was a year ago when Iowa teammates T.J. Hockenson (No. 8 overall) and Noah Fant went in the first 20 picks, two of four tight ends taken in the first 52 selections. Fans looking for New England to target the tight end spot in the middle of the draft have already taken a liking to LSU’s Thaddeus Moss, son of former Patriots receiver Randy Moss. Whether it’s a high-priced free agent, a mid-level veteran addition, a trade or a draft pick, Bill Belichick must find a way to turn tight end back into a strength for the Patriots rather than the obvious weakness the position was in 2019.