Deion Branch is very high on Patriots' new-look tight end room

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Deion Branch is very high on Patriots' new-look tight end room originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Over the last two years, the New England Patriots' tight end room arguably was the worst in football.

Ben Watson and Matt LaCosse were the leaders in the tight end room in 2019. The Patriots had just 36 catches from their top three options at the position, including Ryan Izzo.

Last year, the team added third-round draft picks Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene to the fold along with Izzo. The result? A half-life regression in the area of receptions; the Patriots' tight ends only recorded 18 catches on the year.

The problem became bad enough that Bill Belichick decided to make some wholesale changes in free agency. Now, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry will serve as the top two tight ends for the team, as they signed lucrative contracts with New England.

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There's at least one former Patriot who thinks these moves will work out. Deion Branch, who spent seven seasons of his career in New England, said that the duo could be better than the Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez tandem if the Patriots go back to running tight-end-heavy sets.

"In that offense, the tight ends are vital, especially with what Josh [McDaniels] wants to do," Branch said, via Karen Guregian of The Boston Herald. "It was the same with Charlie [Weis] back in his days, and Billy [O'Brien], and they landed some really good guys. With Aaron and Gronk, every defender was at a disadvantage trying to cover them, so I do like what they did.

Branch continued:

You’re going to see the Patriots go back to that two tight end set, especially with Smith and Henry. This is going to be crazy … and it may be a little better. And I know it’s kind of crazy to say that.

Deion Branch, via Karen Guregian of The Boston Herald

Branch knows that lofty comparison carries weight, as he played alongside Gronkowski and Hernandez during the final two-and-a-half years of his career. During those campaigns, 2010-12, Gronkowski and Hernandez combined to average 120.7 catches, 1,539.7 receiving yards, and 18.7 touchdowns per season. And that was with the two tight ends combining to miss 15 games.

If the Patriots could get even half of that type of production from Henry and Smith, that would be significantly better than what they have gotten out of the position on average the last two seasons.

A hard day's (tight) end

Average Patriots TE catches 2019-20

27

Average Patriots TE receiving yards 2019-20

336

Variation

Double

As Branch explained, what Gronkowski and Hernandez brought to the Patriots was mismatch ability. They were playmakers, but they also opened up the offense in other ways because of the attention they demanded.

"[Gronk and Hernandez] were so valuable because we got to move Aaron to an outside position in a trip (triple) set," Branch said, per Guregian. "He could be an outside receiver and that would force a defense to stay in their base defense. That meant, our third receiver is being covered by a linebacker. That’s the beauty of it."

After the Patriots' receivers struggled to get any sort of separation last year, having two potential do-it-all, mismatch weapons like Henry and Smith should only help them get more one-on-one matchups. Perhaps in more favorable opportunities like that, the team's receivers will be able to separate more and find some success.

Either way, it bodes well for New England that Branch sees the upside in this tight end corps, as he played with what was arguably the team's best tight end room of all-time.

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Even if Henry and Smith don't exceed the production of Gronk and Hernandez, they should be a significant upgrade over what the Patriots have had at the position in recent seasons.