FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that the New England Patriots biggest weakness going into the 2019 season is the tight end position. After losing Rob Gronkowski to retirement and releasing Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the Patriots have failed to make any significant moves that should instill confidence in the tight end group. As it stands today, New England has five tight ends on their active roster: Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse, Stephen Anderson, Ryan Izzo, and Andrew Beck.
Not only is Watson suspended for the first four games of the 2019 season, but the former Saints tight end turns 39 this December. That makes Watson the oldest tight end in the league and puts him up there for the oldest player in the league. That's your number one tight end, New England fans.
Behind Watson sits Matt LaCosse. The former Bronco expects to be the fill-in starter for Watson when he serves his suspension, but LaCosse hasn't done nearly enough to prove that he is a capable starter. LaCosse's first true NFL action came last season as he appeared in 15 games, starting five of them and recording just 24 receptions for 250 yards and one touchdown. Before last season he had only appeared in seven games over two seasons catching three balls for 22 yards.
Everyone seems to be handing Matt LaCosse the starting role and forgetting about the other tight ends on the roster, most notably former Houston tight end Stephen Anderson.
Anderson was added to the Patriots practice squad just before the start of the 2018 season but failed to appear in any games for the Patriots.
Anderson's last game action came in 2017 with the Texans when he started in five games for the team posting 25 receptions for 342 yards and a score. Throughout his young three- year career, Anderson has operated as primarily a "move" tight end. A move tight end isn't asked to line up inside and block very often and instead excels mostly in the passing game as a receiver. That's similar to what Aaron Hernandez did throughout his Patriots tenure. A move tight end is usually more athletic and undersized when compared to a traditional tight end. Because of this, the team opts to use the player as essentially a bigger slot receiver. Anderson falls directly under this category.
To get an idea of Anderson's athleticism, just take a look at his absurd numbers at the University of California pro day when he was preparing for the NFL Draft. His impressive 4.64 40 time doesn't even compare to the 4.11 20 yards short shuttle and 6.95 three-cone times. Those testing numbers are great for most receivers, let alone tight ends.
Because of Anderson's rare blend of size and quickness, he was essentially asked to play slot receiver at Cal. Safeties were too small to guard him and linebackers were too slow. Anderson was also able to find the openings in zone coverage.
Just take a look at this clip from Anderson in college.
In this clip, Anderson is lined up at the bottom of the screen in the slot. Both receivers are running a simple "smash" route concept. In this concept, the outside receiver runs a short route (usually an out or hitch) to bring their defender down. The number two receiver then runs a corner route and finds an opening in the zone right behind the outside receiver's defender. Anderson and his teammate run this concept to perfection as he picks up 24 yards on the play.
There aren't many tight ends in the NFL that can run routes as smooth as Stephen Anderson. In the clip below, he is lined up in the slot once again at the bottom of the screen.
Some things to take notice of here are how quickly he is able to get his depth on this route and how fluid his hips are when he changes direction on this in-breaking route. Anderson looks more like a receiver in this clip than he does a tight end.
Here, Anderson is lined up as the number three receiver in this clip at the bottom of the screen.
The defense is playing man-to-man coverage and Anderson is tasked with running an inside seam route. Instead of taking off to the inside right away, Anderson attacks his defender's leverage and makes a quick move to give the defender the illusion he is running an out-breaking route. This slight move freezes the defensive back for just a moment, giving Anderson all the space he needs to get open for the touchdown. The little nuances of route running are not lost on Anderson.
Given Anderson's route-running ability, overall athleticism, and the current state of the tight end group, one would think he has a more than decent shot of making the final 53-man roster. Anderson admitted he needed to put on some extra pounds in order to be able to handle NFL defensive linemen because even though he operates as primarily a move tight end, he will be asked to block in-line at times.
With all the attention on Watson and LaCosse heading into the 2019 season, let me ask one thing of you: Don't sleep on Stephen Anderson.