Bill Belichick has some gaping holes to fill on the New England Patriots' roster during the 2019 NFL Draft. Though he typically selects the best player on the board rather than picking what he needs, this offseason shines some glaring weaknesses on New England's depth chart that have to be filled and may need to be addressed on Thursday and Friday of the draft.
One position, in particular, is tight end. Now that Rob Gronkowski has retired, that leaves the likes of Jacob Hollister, Stephen Anderson, and Matt LaCosse to fill a huge void left by Gronkowski at TE. Austin Seferian-Jenkins just signed with the team on Wednesday but has a history of being injury prone and will likely not be more than a rotational player, though he does add some much-needed talent and depth to the position.
Aside from the ASF acquisition, it would be wise for New England to still draft another young, explosive tight end for Brady and the offense similar to what Belichick awarded them back in 2010.
In a draft that is strong at the tight end position, New England has some choices to make with the 32nd overall pick.
Iowa product T.J. Hockenson is projected to go within the first 15 picks of the draft, and his teammate, Noah Fant is projected to go not too soon after. Moving up the board to get Fant is a possibility for the Patriots, as they have plenty of draft capital to do such and teams like the Seahawks (21st overall pick in the first round) are looking to move back in the draft a bit more.
But if New England chooses to sit tight at no. 32, what are their options?
After Hockenson and Fant, the board is left with two talented pass-catchers - Irv Smith Jr. from Alabama and Jace Sternberger from Texas A&M. The former is projected to go in the late-first round, early-second round range. Sternberger is a late-second round, early-third round projection.
Sternberger is a superb pass-catcher, but his inability to block effectively and consistently in the run game is why he falls towards the end of Day 2. The idea that New England drafts a defensive lineman on Day 1, then take Sternberger with either the 54th overall pick (from Chicago) or the 64th overall pick makes plenty of sense. But the former Aggies' glaring weakness in the blocking game would make him more of a glorified receiver in the Patriots' run-heavy scheme.
New England needs versatility at the tight end position. They need someone who isn't going to be a liability in the run game and can also break off and gash a defense when they least expect it for a huge gain. That's why Smith seems like the best fit for the Patriots in this year's draft class.
At 6-foot-2, 242 lbs, Smith is a little undersized, but can nevertheless set the edge effectively in the run game and can also be a mismatch against linebackers because of his speed in the passing game. He has plenty to work on in both areas, but is well-equipped to be a plug-and-play tight end for New England in his rookie season. Not to mention he was coached by Belichick's pal, Nick Saban who coached now-Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard two years ago. Smith has been compared to Howard based on his ability in all facets of the game.
Are the Patriots reaching if they select Smith with the 32nd pick?
Smith's projection lands right where New England's draft pick is in the first round. The awesome thing about the 32nd overall pick - it's a great spot in the draft for other NFL teams to slide back into the first round and select someone on Day 1. So, the Patriots could easily slide back in the draft a bit more by giving up the 32nd overall pick, gaining more draft capital, and selecting Smith with a pick in the 33-to-43 range if they'd like to. At that point, Smith would wholeheartedly be a value pick. Either way, it can be justified if New England selects him on Day 1 or very early on Day 2. If the Patriots want to keep their offensive versatility and dominance in the run game as they did in 2018, the selection of the Alabama tight end needs to be made.