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Rather than chase after the next Aaron Hernandez, many Patriots pundits believe that the team would be better off selecting a more traditional tight end in the draft. The idea that the Patriots could play smash-mouth football using 22 personnel with Gronkowski, TE X, Ridley, and Vereen is an intriguing proposition. This year’s draft class is fairly deep at the tight end spot, and there are a few options that the Patriots might consider. Perhaps the best traditional tight end in the draft is Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas.
One player Niklas has been compared to (thanks to his size and athleticism) is Rob Gronkowski. Niklas replaced Cinciniati Bengal Tyler Eifert in the Notre Dame starting offense last season and caught 32 balls for 498 yards and five touchdowns. It certainly wasn’t an out-of-this-world season, but nevertheless NFL scouts are intrigued by his skill-set. Niklas measured at 6’6″ 270 lbs at the combine, but he did not participate in the 40-yard dash, and also missed his pro-day entirely. Niklas actually began his career at outside linebacker, so he certainly has a jack-of-all-trades type attitude that the Pats organization likes. His experience at linebacker would make him an ideal candidate to serve on special teams as well. Niklas projects as a second round pick, but it would not at all be surprising to see the Patriots select him at 29th overall in the first round.
Niklas demonstrated impressive route-running ability during his time at Notre Dame, and scouts love his explosiveness coming out of his breaks. While he has good potential as a blocker, he has struggled with his technique in-line blocking, and is more effective when flexed in the slot. His size allowed him to blossom as a red-zone target in college, and he demonstrated an impressive catch radius during his two seasons at tight end. As a converted OLB, Niklas is still a work in-progress at TE, but his potential is real. It could take him a bit to develop into a top tight end, but he certainly fits the mold of a traditional tight end and one that could be hugely successful across from Rob Gronkowski.