The Patriots entered the free agency period with just Chris Baker and two inexperienced, unknown players at the tight end position. Their leading TE, Ben Watson, was an UFA and not expected to stay with the team. Then, they surprisingly released Baker and now have no chance at retaining Watson, as he has signed a 3-year deal with the Cleveland Browns. The Patriots have brought in some tight ends for free agent visits. Daniel Fells, who played with the Rams last season, was in for a visit and offered the Pats a young TE on the rise, but St. Louis has since re-signed him. The Pats also brought in Alge Crumpler who could serve as a veteran presence, but he remains unsigned.
What are the other options at TE?
In the UFA market, the best going are L.J. Smith and Randy McMichael, though they would be bounce-back prospects after disappointing seasons. The restricted market is a little better, though also a little more costly in draft pick compensation. Anthony Fasano, Owen Daniels, Tony Scheffler, Bo Scaiffe, and David Thomas are all good RFA’s, though they have high-pick compensation. I don’t think the Pats would go this route, but if they did, you can probably forget about Thomas returning. The Pats traded Thomas to the Saints for peanuts and he ended up posting good numbers, despite playing behind Jeremy Shockey. Trading for his return would cost more and acknowledge a huge personnel mistake.
The tight end position has seemed to be a position that the Patriots have consistently missed on in the Bill Belichick Era. From 2000 to 2006, the Pats drafted at least one TE. They drafted a TE in every round of the draft except the second. Very few are still playing in the NFL. Here’s the list of tight ends drafted in the Belichick Era, including the round in which they were drafted.
2000: Dave Stachelski (5th)
2001: Jabari Holloway (4th), Arthur Love (6th)
2002: Daniel Graham (1st)
2003: Spencer Nead (7th)
2004: Ben Watson (1st)
2005: Anthony Stokes (7th)
2006: David Thomas (3rd), Garrett Mills (4th; Mills was drafted to be an H-back, but he was a TE in college)
Daniel Graham is the best of the bunch, as he was an excellent blocker and could certainly have made a difference a few games where the pass rush got to Brady often (Super Bowl?). Ben Watson came in with a lot of hype but never lived up to his potential. However, upon closer review, perhaps he was overhyped. In college, Watson never caught more than 31 passes and in the NFL, his best was 49 catches in 2006. Despite a less-than-stellar draft history at the TE position, don’t be surprised to see the Pats pick one up during this year’s draft.
Steve Muench from Scouts, Inc. thinks that Arizona TE Rob Gronkowski would be a good fit in New England. Here are some of his thoughts on Gronkowski:
“We have him as an early second-rounder at this point, but even with the limited body of work and film to look at, he still could sneak into the first round. That’s very rare for someone in his position.
“At the combine, he measured in at 6-foot-6, 264 pounds and had 23 reps on the 225-pound bench press. He has huge hands and really long arms. What you can see of him on film, he is a tough blocker. Some tight ends will just wall guys off or do a little dancing with them, but he takes pride in that area of the game. On top of that, he has potential to be an outstanding receiver. We don’t know his top-end speed yet because he didn’t run at the combine, but we do know he can stretch the field based on what we’ve seen on film. He shows he can track the deep ball and make plays down the seam, while also making plays underneath by using his frame to shield defenders.”
However, the big question mark with Gronkowski is that he missed last season after having back surgery. Back problems tend to linger, so immediately a red flag has to go up there. He also carries with him the “limited work, freakish athletic ability” tag, which should sound familiar to Pats fans (see Ben Watson). Here’s Scout.com’s top 5 tight ends:
1. Aaron Hernandez (Florida)
2. Jermaine Gresham (Oklahoma)
3. Jimmy Graham (Miami, FL)
4. Rob Gronkowski (Arizona)
5. Edward Dickson (Oregon)
While one can never tell what the Pats will do, one thing is for certain: there will be fresh faces at the tight end position this season. I highly doubt that it will be solely manned by a draft pick or two, and a veteran free agent will be brought in (or traded for).