FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There was one play in the New England Patriots' mandatory minicamp this week when the offense didn't have a tight end on the field, as three wide receivers and two running backs joined quarterback Tom Brady for a passing drill. The cynic might have captured that snapshot as an ominous sign for the Patriots' plans to replace the retired Rob Gronkowski.
In reality, it was mostly a reminder that the Patriots have always liberally mixed up their personnel groupings, although it does highlight that their current tight-end personnel remains a question mark -- particularly with veteran Benjamin Watson to serve a four-game NFL suspension to open the season, and fellow veteran Austin Seferian-Jenkins released Tuesday.
So the "next man up" on the depth chart has been four-year veteran Matt LaCosse, who was taking first-team repetitions in Wednesday's practice.
"Obviously it's a good opportunity, but nothing has been earned yet," the 6-foot-6, 255-pound LaCosse said. "We still have a really long way to go. Everyone is competing for the same spot. It's one of those things you keep your pedal on the metal and you kind of get what you earn here."
LaCosse is familiar with that mindset, having initially entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2015 with the New York Giants. The University of Illinois alum toiled mostly as a backup and practice-squad player in his initial NFL years, before the Denver Broncos signed him off the Giants' practice squad in December 2017.
After totaling a career-high 24 receptions last season, and creating some late-season buzz in the fantasy football ranks, LaCosse wasn't tendered a restricted free-agent offer by the Broncos. That's what led him to the Patriots on a two-year, $3.8 million contract.
"He's a young player that has some talent, he's played in the league, and we feel like he has some upside. We'll see how it goes in our system," coach Bill Belichick said.
LaCosse, 26, referred to himself a "multiple guy," noting he can play "inside, outside" and even in the backfield and on special teams. Such versatility is what the Patriots often value, but LaCosse measured his words carefully Wednesday by pointing out the true test will come in training camp and, ultimately, games. He echoed what several Patriots players have said in June over the years: This time on the NFL calendar is about building trust with the coaching staff by showing that assignments are carried out correctly.
Fellow tight end Stephen Anderson, who spent last season on the Patriots' practice squad after having played in 28 games for the Houston Texans in 2016-17, said that's also his goal. He has been impressed with LaCosse.
"He's a big guy but he can move really well. That's one of the things I was surprised with when I saw him," Anderson said. "He's a jack of all trades. He can block. He can go out there and catch -- go up and get it. I think he will be a great piece."
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Anderson, who is more of a pass-catching tight end (36 NFL receptions) than an inline blocker, sees what everyone else does when it comes to the Patriots' tight-end group: a massive, Gronk-sized hole to fill.
"Personally, thinking about it, I know there are big shoes to replace," he said. "But none of us need to be Rob. We just need to be the best versions of ourselves."
In hopes of achieving that, Anderson said he works out with 2018 seventh-round draft choice Ryan Izzo, who made the Patriots' initial 53-man roster as a rookie before landing on injured reserve the next day. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Izzo has a chance to fill a role similar to what Dwayne Allen did in New England the past two seasons: inline blocker whose primary contributions in the passing game would most likely be in the short-to-intermediate area.
So with Watson out for the first quarter of the season, and Seferian-Jenkins no longer part of the team's plans, it's a thin tight-end group of LaCosse, Anderson and Izzo. Undrafted free agent Andrew Beck of Texas, who is listed on the roster as a tight end, has been working more with fullbacks James Develin and Jakob Johnson during practice.
There's always the possibility that the Patriots could attempt to bolster the position via a trade, or in free agency if a tight end becomes a salary-cap casualty, but for now, this is it.
"Everybody's taking reps, everybody's getting an opportunity," Belichick said. "So we'll see how it all works out when we get the pads on."