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With Gronk’s future still unclear, Bucs draft tight end Cade Otton

The team also traded up late Saturday to draft Minnesota tight end Ko Kieft
Washington tight end Cade Otton runs during a game against Arkansas State last September. The Bucs took Otton with the first pick of the fourth round Saturday in the NFL draft.
Washington tight end Cade Otton runs during a game against Arkansas State last September. The Bucs took Otton with the first pick of the fourth round Saturday in the NFL draft. [ STEPHEN BRASHEAR | Associated Press ]
Published Apr. 30|Updated May 1

TAMPA — Hours after Rob Gronkowski wrapped up his raucous Vegas beach party, the Bucs began Day 3 of the NFL draft by making plans in case their free-spirited tight end never returns to work.

With the first pick of the fourth round (106th overall) Saturday, the team selected Washington redshirt senior Cade Otton, a four-year Huskies starter who hails from a venerable Washington state prep football family. A 2020 first-team All-Pac-12 pick, Otton already was sporting a white Bucs hat while addressing reporters via Zoom moments after being picked.

“They gave me one at the combine after my interview,” said Otton, who is 23 and married. “So I held on to it just with fingers crossed hoping the time would come, and I was ready.”

Later in the draft, which included two minor Bucs trades, the team gave up a pair of seventh-round picks to select another tight end, Minnesota redshirt senior Ko Kieft. An All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2021, Kieft (6-5, 265 pounds) arrived at Minnesota in the same recruiting class as current Bucs Antoine Winfield Jr. and Tyler Johnson.

Otton (6-5, 247) and Kieft become the third and fourth tight ends on the current Tampa Bay roster, joining 30-year-old Cameron Brate and 29-year-old practice-squad regular Codey McElroy.

Gronkowski, 32, still hasn’t indicated whether he intends to play in 2022, and general manager Jason Licht said Friday night that Gronk’s decision wouldn’t influence the Bucs’ draft strategy.

“I’m still giving him that time,” Licht said. “We still talk. I think it didn’t matter if we drafted two tight ends. It wouldn’t matter. I think Rob welcomes that — the more the merrier for him. So that doesn’t show our hand on or foretell what’s going to happen in the future.”

Cade Otton was limited somewhat by an ankle injury last season, but says he's ready to go for training camp.
Cade Otton was limited somewhat by an ankle injury last season, but says he's ready to go for training camp. [ JOHN HEFTI | Associated Press ]

The grandson of Washington’s all-time winningest high school coach, Otton’s dad coaches at Tumwater High, where Otton was named the state’s Class 2A Player of the Year in 2016.

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“I feel like I was born with a football in my hand, going to games every Friday night,” said Otton, who wears the same number (87) as Gronk. “I grew up watching NFL Network, that’s just what I did. I’ve always had a love for the game and I definitely attribute that to my grandpa and my dad.”

A college teammate of Bucs 2021 first-round draftee Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, Otton’s most productive season as a pass catcher came in 2019, when he had 32 receptions for 344 yards and two touchdowns. He had 28 catches in only eight starts in 2021, missing two games due to COVID-19 protocol and two others due to an ankle injury that required surgery in November.

“The ankle’s feeling great,” he said. “It’s been a long rehab process, there’s been ups and downs, but there’s always been progress made, which I’ve been super happy with. ... Yeah, I’ll definitely be ready for training camp.”

Before being injured, he brandished his versatility at the position, displaying solid route-running chops, blocking in space and inside, and emerging as a reliable target. In four seasons at Washington, he collected 91 receptions for 1,026 yards and nine touchdowns.

“Cade Otton probably would’ve gone higher if he had been healthy through the spring process,” NFL.com draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said.

“Is a true in-line tight end. He can block, he’s outstanding in the run game. ... He’s very physical after the catch. Maybe not the most dynamic athlete ... but a solid all-around tight end.”

Kieft, who earned a masters degree at Minnesota, totaled nine catches the past two seasons but acknowledged he was drafted for his blocking chops.

“Any kind of run blocking, pass (protection), I’m your man,” Kieft said. “I’ll get down and dirty with the worst of them.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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