The Patriots were one Martellus Bennett misstep away from having Matt Lengel and James Develin as their top two tight ends in the Super Bowl. Bennett's legs were a mess after having to be managed throughout the course of last season, but he (and his team) avoided relative catasrophe and he caught five passes for 62 yards en route to a title.
Though Bill Belichick picked up Dwayne Allen in a trade this offseason to make up for Bennett's departure via free agency, he could be seeking more depth behind Rob Gronkowski in this year's draft. Depending on how the Patriots see Gronkowski's long-term outlook following back surgery last season, they could even be on the lookout for his eventual successor.
If ever there were a time to be dipping into the tight end position in the draft, this might be it. The class is loaded with top-end blue-chip talent as well versatile mid-round options.
PHIL PERRY'S PROTOTYPICAL PATRIOTS DRAFT PREVIEW
The Patriots have long coveted superior athletes at the position who can do a little bit of everything so in this installment of the Prototypical Patriots series -- the final installment before Day 1 of the draft -- we'll have a closer look at guys who can handle their assignments as receivers and move people in the running game.
OJ Howard, Alabama, 6-foot-5, 251 pounds: One of the safest players in this year's draft, Howard could hear his name called in the top-10 on Thursday night. In terms of his athleticism, he checks just about every box the Patriots are looking for in a tight end with a 4.51-second 40-yard dash, a 121-inch broad jump, a 6.85-second three-cone and a 4.16-second short shuttle. He's as a more-than-effective in-line blocker, yet his size and speed make him a big-play threat in the passing game as well. The Patriots probably won't have a shot at taking him, but it's safe to assume he received a draftable grade from them . . .
David Njoku, Miami, 6-foot-4, 246 pounds: Another physical specimen. Njoku is probably more explosive than Howard (37.5-inch vertical, 133-inch broad jump), and he may be better with the ball in his hands. Though he's a willing blocker, he doesn't offer quite the same in-line ability just yet. Njoku's received comparisons to Washington's Jordan Reed and is a near-lock to go in the first round. If the Patriots want a shot at him, they'll want to make a move on Day 1.
Adam Shaheen, Ashland, 6-foot-6, 278 pounds: Size on top of size on top of size, and a decent athlete to boot. His 4.79-second 40-yard dash won't blow anyone away, but he broad-jumped 121 inches and clocked a very respectable (at his weight) 7.09-second three-cone drill. Teams may worry about the level of competition he faced at the Division 2 level, and they may flag his technique as a blocker. But he's already a red-zone threat, and with the right coaching he has the frame to be dominant in the running game.
George Kittle, Iowa, 6-foot-3, 247 pounds: I've mentioned Kittle on just about every platform we have here at CSN: mock drafts, podcasts, Boston Sports Tonight. It's a healthy obsession. And there's a reason for it. At this position he's the clear-cut best fit for the Patriots in this class, in my opinion. Part of the reason for that is because he's expected to go in the middle rounds, and that's where the Patriots have picks. But it's mostly because of what he can do on the field. He's more than athletic enough -- 4.52-second 40, 35-inch vertical, 132-inch broad jump -- to create space in opposing secondaries. He was also an impactful run-blocker for the Hawkeyes under head coach Kirk Ferentz (a former assistant to Bill Belichick in Cleveland) and Ferentz's son Brian, who once served as the tight ends coach in New England. The Patriots will know that Kittle's been taught the fundamentals properly. And they'll know that if they get a good recommendation from the Ferentz family, they can count on it.
Jake Butt, Michigan, 6-foot-5, 246 pounds: Had it not been for a torn ACL in the Citrus Bowl, Butt may have been a second-round pick. He still may go in that range, but there seems to be a chance he falls to the Patriots in the third round. Because their roster is so well-stocked, perhaps Belichick and his staff would be comfortable rolling the dice on a player in need of a red-shirt year who could pay dividends down the line.
Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas, 6-foot-5, 252 pounds: Pro Football Focus likes Sprinkle not quite as much as they do Butt, but more than they do Shaheen. Considered an adequate pass-blocker who still needs work in the running game, he could be dangerous as a receiver. He has 34.5-inch arms and almost 11-inch hands, which will help him be an option even when he doesn't look open. Athletically, he's no standout. His 4.7-second 40, 29-inch vertical and 116-inch broad jump seem to fall short of what seem like Patriots thresholds at the position. He's considered a good route-runner, though, who thrives in the short-to-intermediate area. Sprinkle was cited by police and suspended before the Belk Bowl for attempting to shoplift.
Gerald Everett, South Alabama, 6-foot-3, 239 pounds: Everett would be more of a "move" tight end, which would probably take him out of the running as Gronkowski's eventual replacement. Still, he's a very good athlete for a man of his size and would be a matchup problem at the next level in Josh McDaniels' offense. He's explosive (3.75-inch vertical, 126-inch broad jump) and quick enough to avoid tacklers in space (4.33-second short shuttle, 6.99-second three-cone). The former basketball player who played just one year of high school football needs some work on his technique, but he's a willing blocker with natural pass-catching ability who's just scratching the surface of his potential.