By: Ian Logue
At 6’8″, tight end Justin Jones is an intriguing prospect. (USA TODAY Images)
The Patriots watched some of the top tight ends come off the board this past weekend before they had a chance to grab one, and as a result they looked to some of the guys who failed to get drafted to try and add some depth.
On Monday they announced the signing of nine rookie free agents, including three tight ends in Tyler Beck, Justin Jones, and Asa Watson. Prior to the draft the Patriots weren’t exactly stacked at that position, and coming up without one of the top prospects leaves them with some uncertainty. Rob Gronkowski’s knee injury remains a big question mark heading into the year and as it stands right now, unless someone emerges, they’re still lacking any real depth behind Michael Hoomanawanui.
As a result, it’s an opportunity that is knocking for all three of these free agent prospects. The good news is if they can break through, it’s entirely possible one (or more) of those players could factor into the mix in the months ahead. Hopefully they’ll fare better than last year’s undrafted free agent Zach Sudfeld, with the Nevada standout having a tremendous preseason but wasn’t able to carry that into the regular season.
During last year’s exhibition season, Sudfeld was targeted eleven times with eight receptions, including five first downs and a touchdown. He was also targeted twice with two receptions on third down, both of which were first downs.
That wasn’t the case during the regular season. He was targeted just three times, two of which were picked off and never looked like he and Tom Brady were in sync. The team seemingly released him on October 3rd with the intention of placing him on the practice squad, but the Jets grabbed him.
Now one year later, while Watson, Beck, and Jones never had their name called, they have a big opportunity to potentially make a name for themselves on the field over these next few months. Taking a closer look at each one, there are certainly some reasons to believe that one could eventually emerge, which sets up an interesting storyline heading into training camp.
Tyler Beck, Bowling Green – Beck appeared in 13 games in 2013, finishing the season with 10 receptions for 177 yards. The 6’2″, 257-pound senior’s stats were a bit limited, and for any fans hoping he’ll be a guy who can help give the Patriots the type of third down threat that Gronkowski does (10 receptions, with 8 conversions including 2 touchdowns last season) Beck will have to do something he didn’t do last year and establish himself as that type of player in the NFL. Of his 10 catches last year, not one came on third down (6 catches for 130-yards and two touchdowns on 1st down, 3 catches for 34 yards on 2nd down, 1 catch for 12 yards on 4th down). Overall of his 25 career receptions, he made just one third down catch, which was a two yard pick-up in 2012.
Justin Jones, East Carolina – Jones is certainly the most interesting of the three, standing a massive 6’8″. On paper this would have most people salivating at the prospect of having someone that tall catching passes. Unfortunately, Jones was ineligible for his senior season due to his grades, even despite spending his time in summer school. He finished his career with 52 receptions for 598 yards and 12 touchdowns in 32 games, including a career-high 25 catches in 2012. He was a red zone threat, with two of those 25 receptions coming inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, both of which were touchdowns. Needless to say after missing his senior season, Jones should be hungry and looking to prove himself, which could potentially make him someone to watch in the months ahead.
Asa Watson, NC State – If the name sounds familiar, it’s with good reason. Watson is the brother of former Patriots tight end Ben Watson, who was a 1st round pick selected by New England back in 2004. Unfortunately Asa has some obstacles to overcome as he’s also battling health issues after undergoing heart surgeries in 2010 and 2011. He reportedly has Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, which causes the ventricles of the heart to prematurely contract. It doesn’t seem to be a concern in his eyes, as he reportedly told a few teams that asked about it, that “it’s a nuisance rather than a hindrance.” Obviously the Patriots felt it was worth the risk.
The 6’2″, 239 pound Watson did a “Draft Diary” this past offseason with USA Today, and said his older brother Ben, who is ten years older, was always someone he looked up to.
“I just tried to copy him as much as I could,” wrote Watson. “I was playing football in the street, then watching him on Friday nights, seeing the great impact that he had at his high school. It was a fun childhood with me, him and four others. It was a packed house, but you always had somebody to play with.”
Now he’s got an opportunity to potentially start his pro career with the same team.