NEPD Staff Writer: Mike Gerken
With all the big splashes the Patriots have made in free agency……Oh wait, nevermind. Once again, the Patriots have taken a much more laid back approach to free agency. Every year, fans complain that the Patriots are the only team not to do anything in free agency. Then, they completely forget when the team is on another run deep into the playoffs. This team has a philosophy of building through the draft, and one position that needs attention is Tight End. The Patriots have Gronk, but fans have clamored for Aaron Hernandez’s replacement since his departure from the team. Well, Thomas Duarte may be that guy.
Before I get into Duarte, lets talk about what the Patriots have actually done in free agency. Hogan seems like a great fit for the Patriots, and from all accounts, he is a guy that has been on the Patriots radar for awhile now. This seems like one of those signings that you look back on in 3 years and wonder how Buffalo ever let this guy go. I think this signing gives the team some leverage with Amendola as well. His contract needs to be restructured and if he is unwilling, Hogan could be a suitable replacement. As of writing this, Akiem Hicks has not signed anywhere, but it is not looking good for his return to New England. I thought Hicks was great down the stretch last year and was hoping he would return. There were some other minor signings/extensions, but nothing really worth writing about, so lets get back to Duarte.
Name: Thomas Duarte (#18)
School: UCLA (JR.)
Weight: 231 Lbs. (combine)
Duarte is a well rounded athlete with good size. He is smooth with sneaky quickness and agility. He moves well in and out of his breaks and does a nice job of setting up defenders. Overall he is a good route runner. Duarte has good hands and a large catch radius making him a big target for his Quarterback. He plays tough and shows no fear when going over the middle. Duarte shows excellent body control for his size and has the ability to make tough catches look easy. If used correctly, Duarte can be a threat at all 3 levels and be a very good red zone option.
Duarte is the definition of a “tweener” and will need to go to a team that knows how to use him correctly. He will have the occasional mental lapse and drop an easy catch from time to time. Duarte will need to learn to play more physical and not allow defenders to get him off his routes. He has good, not great straight line speed and may not be considered a threat to take it to the house after the catch. Duarte does not have the strength or bulk to be an inline blocker from the Tight End position and never will.
I rarely do player comparisons because frankly, I am just not very good at them. However, after watching Duarte for only a short time, Aaron Hernandez came to mind. Forget all the off field stuff with Hernandez and remember the player. He was a TE really only in name, but the way the Patriots used him and Gronk together created excellent mismatches. Their positives and negatives line up almost exactly in my mind. Duarte has more reliable hands, but like Hernandez, would have the occasional drop of an easy catch. Hernandez was a bit more advanced in his ability to set up defenders, but you see flashes of it from Duarte. Duarte is never going to be considered a great blocker at the next level, but he shows some technique and willingness when asked. The team that looks at Duarte’s “tweener” size as a positive instead of a negative is going to be rewarded with a really good move TE that can help out in the passing game. I think Duarte should come off the board earlier rather than later on day 3 and could be a pick we look back on as a steal down the road.