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Life after Gronk hasn't been kind to Patriots; can they change that in 2021?

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Ninkovich makes bold prediction on where Gronk will play next season (0:52)

Rob Ninkovich predicts where Rob Gronkowski will play next season as a first-time free agent. (0:52)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It has been six weeks since the New England Patriots' mostly forgettable Week 17 finale against the New York Jets, although something significant happened that day to possibly help answer one of the team's biggest questions.

Rookie tight end Devin Asiasi looked the best he had all season, catching a 26-yard touchdown pass. He said, "Going into the offseason, I think it gives a little momentum and a little confidence; definitely something to build off."

Tight end has essentially been a black hole in the Patriots' offense for the past two years, a stretch of time also known as "Life After Gronk [Rob Gronkowski]." It is arguably the team's biggest need this offseason outside of quarterback.

Asiasi had a rocky first season after the Patriots traded up to select him in the third round out of UCLA, but the promise he flashed in the finale (e.g., running well, reliable hands) showed he could still be a piece in a larger plan to bring the position back to significance.

Pair him with a top free agent such as Hunter Henry (Chargers) or Jonnu Smith (Titans), taking some pressure off Asiasi from an expectations standpoint, and the complexion of how tight end is viewed in the Patriots' offense could look different in 2021.

And if Henry or Smith are too pricey or sign elsewhere, there should be other notable options to consider based on an analysis of ESPN NFL Nation reporters of players across the league who would benefit from a fresh start. The group of 32 players included seven tight ends.

To quantify how tight end has disappeared from the Patriots' offense, consider this from Doug Clawson of ESPN's Stats & Information:

  • Patriots tight ends have the fewest receptions (55), receiving yards (673), targets (87) and receiving touchdowns (3) in the NFL over the past two seasons.

  • In 2020, Patriots tight ends had 18 receptions, the fewest by any team since the 2016 Jets (18).

The drop-off is dramatic when considering from 2010 to 2018, the Patriots led the NFL in receiving yards (11,773) and receiving touchdowns (120) from tight ends.

Michael Lombardi, who served as an assistant to the Patriots' coaching staff from 2014 to 2015, highlighted how gaping the void has been when he said on sports radio WEEI, "The Patriots need a player that can really, really challenge the middle of the field the way they used Gronk in the past, and other tight ends. So a tight end to an outside receiver is where I would go."

Resources have not been an issue for New England. Since 2010, the Patriots have drafted seven tight ends, tied with seven other teams for most in the NFL. Last year, the Patriots were one of two teams to draft multiple tight ends (along with the Seattle Seahawks). New England will have at least eight picks in April's draft, and the Patriots could target another tight end. Top prospects at the position who could be around for New England include Florida's Kyle Pitts, Penn State's Pat Freiermuth and Boston College's Hunter Long.

Over the past decade, they also traded for veteran tight ends such as Martellus Bennett and Dwayne Allen, while signing Matt LaCosse, who opted out of the 2020 season and could still be part of the Patriots' plans this year.

One of their draft picks, hard-nosed Ryan Izzo (seventh round, 2018), is recovering from a neck injury and also factors into the mix from a depth standpoint. Same with 2020 third-round pick Dalton Keene who, in a perfect Patriots world, could develop into a Swiss Army knife versatile option.

New England used to be the spot that defined tight end excellence.

Whether it can return to that lofty status is a top offseason storyline.