Ryan Izzo makes case to be Gronk's replacement as starting Patriots tight end

Phil Perry
NBC Sports Boston

FOXBORO - Tom Brady's first-down throw early in the second quarter was a rope. Dropping back from Carolina's 26-yard line, he looked up the seam, planted and put one on a line.

"I had a little heat," Brady said after. "I had a little heat on that. It's nice when you can be decisive and make a good, decisive throw."

But anyone who'd watched Brady practice this summer - anyone following him on Instagram - knew he still had the ability to rear back for a little extra when he needed to. 

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The player on the other end of the pass, meanwhile, was a relative unknown with an opportunity to seize one of the most important gigs in the Patriots offense.  

Ryan Izzo started at tight end Thursday night against the Panthers, in what's widely considered the closest thing to a regular-season "dress rehearsal." That the second-year player out of Florida State came through with a difficult catch when given the opportunity - on what might've been Brady's best throw of the night - seemed to go a long way with his quarterback.

"For me, anticipation and decisiveness are so important," Brady said. "That comes from experience and trust. So, when guys are in those spots, you feel like you can cut it loose because you have all the decisiveness to do that.

"So, that was a good throw, and I've got to make a lot of those this year. That's what I've been working hard to do, and the team expects me to make all the throws that are there. That was a good play. Ryan made a great catch."

Izzo played 38 snaps in the game, but it was that catch that had to have helped his chances of making the roster and carving out a real role more so than any other.

When Brady let the ball go, he probably saw more of Jermaine Carter's No. 56 jersey than he did of Izzo. But with the defender's head turned, and with Izzo going low to pluck the fastball with his hands, the connection was made.

Izzo said later that thanks to his feel for the positioning of the safety in the middle of the field, he had a pretty good idea that Brady's throw would be a low liner and not a high-arcing lob.

"I think in the back of my mind I kind of had an idea that the safety was coming down," Izzo said. "But that's kind of just instincts. You rep that a lot in practice. You know it's going to be a tight window."

It was repped less than a week ago when Izzo went down the seam and caught a pass from Jarrett Stidham on a similar route. That pass was sailed high, and Izzo took a dangerous hit to his knees soon after he secured the catch.

Regardless of where that pass is aimed - a risk-reward throw that Rob Gronkowski made one of the most dangerous weapons in the Patriots offense for about a decade - Izzo knows he has to put himself in a position to make sure the end result is a good one.

"Being a bigger tight end, kind of a slower guy, you definitely gotta make those plays over the middle," he said. "Having big bodies in the game, you definitely gotta prepare for the hits with those safeties coming downhill, but I think it's just preparing yourself . . . You gotta know they're coming down."

Since Gronkowski's retirement this offseason, the tight end spot for Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has hardly been settled. They signed Matt LaCosse in free agency, and he saw the majority of the first-team reps early in training camp. But LaCosse suffered an injury in the preseason opener in Detroit and hasn't played in a preseason game since. 

That's opened the door for Izzo, who was the top tight end choice Thursday over Ben Watson, Lance Kendricks, Eric Saubert and Stephen Anderson. Watson, suspended for the first four weeks of the season, also saw time with Brady, but the others played primarily with Stidham.

Izzo, a seventh-round pick in 2018, isn't the best athlete of the bunch. At 6-foot-5, 256 pounds at last year's combine, he ran a 4.94-second 40-yard dash. But his strength is as a blocker - something that might serve the Patriots well if they continue to utilize the run-heavy approach they took at the end of last season. 

Plus, Izzo spent last year in the Patriots system while on injured reserve, which amazingly makes him the longest-tenured tight end in the room. His grasp of the offense very well may be ahead of anyone's at the position outside of Watson, who spent the first six years of his career in New England. 

It's not exactly a wealth of experience from which Izzo benefits. But it was enough against the Panthers to help him make the catch of the night and help set up the Patriots for their only touchdown of the game. 

It's anyone's guess who the Patriots will choose at tight end for their 53-man roster. Maybe LaCosse will be healthy enough to be the only guy they need until Watson's return. Maybe there's room for someone like LaCosse as well as Izzo. 

Regardless, Izzo's eye-opening grab Thursday night could only help the rapport he's trying to establish with his quarterback. 

"I think whenever you're able to execute on a play like that, I think it builds some trust with Tom," Izzo said. "But you've gotta keep doing it over and over again. One time isn't good enough. Just gotta keep working."

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Ryan Izzo makes case to be Gronk's replacement as starting Patriots tight end originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

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