FOXBOROUGH – By the time July rolls around, the Patriots may have ten or eleven tight ends on the roster.
After a long morning and afternoon filled with one chance after another for a team to step up and offer the Patriots a deal for Drew Bledsoe going by the board, the Patriots finally pulled the trigger on a trade. Instead of Bledsoe, the trade was draft position in the first round between the Patriots and the Washington Redskins. The Patriots traded up to the 21 slot, and sent their 32 pick, plus a third and a seventh round pick to Daniel Snyder, to help him in his quest for the sexiest pick possible.
In moving up to 21, the Patriots had a chance to fill their biggest need, at linebacker. Northwestern’s Napoleon Harris, the best linebacker in the entire draft, was sitting there, and the strategy to trade up to a mid-first round pick to grab Harris seemed to be just right for the Patriots. Denied the chance to climb up into the top ten and grab a prime stud defensive lineman, Harris was the perfect choice.
But Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli forgot about the thinness at linebacker, especially with Roman Phifer practically out the door, and instead opted to turn Bryant College into Tight End College. The Patriots went against conventional wisdom and selected Colorado tight end Daniel Graham, listed as either the top tight end or the second best in the many scouting reports out there.
Graham becomes the third tight end to join the Patriots in the offseason, joining free agents Cam Cleeland and Christian Fauria. 2001 draftees Arther Love and Jabari Holloway, who missed all of last season due to injury, are also in the mix along with Jermaine Wiggins. Rod Rutledge is gone, so the Patriots are left with “only” six tight ends.
Whoever said that you can’t have enough tight ends is jumping for joy.
The Patriots selected their first tight end in the first round since Russ Francis was taken out of Oregon in 1975. Graham comes with a glittering resume, and gives the Patriots a bona fide offensive weapon to add to Tom Brady’s arsenal. But even if Graham does cause Howard Cosell’s ghost to proclaim Graham as the “all world tight end” of this new millennium, does this selection offset the glaring need at linebacker, especially with Phifer dangerously close to signing with the Raiders?
The secondary strategy, if a Bledsoe trade didn’t pan out, was to trade up into the 15-23 region of the first round and try to snare Harris. The Redskins gave the Patriots that opportunity, and took away the Patriots’ original 32 selection plus their only third round pick. The Patriots came away with a first, a second, two fourths, two fifths and a seventh. But the 21 slot enabled Belichick to get just the linebacker he needed.
Harris was the top rated middle linebacker on most every draft board. In a year devoid of blue chip linebackers, Harris was the cream of a thin crop. But Belichick, in a reversal of last year when they took defense over offense, reversed himself this year and continued to stock players who figure to shore up a Patriot offense that scored low in the playoffs but somehow managed to come out on top each time. Much attention has been given to trying to replace Curtis Martin at running back, but the endeavours to replace Ben Coates have been just as passionate.
Whether this was the prudent move or not will have to be seen. Belichick may be eyeing linebackers with lower picks or other free agents, or he believes that Phifer will return. But with Bryan Cox bolting to New Orleans and Andy Katzenmoyer probably never playing again, the depth of the Patriots at linebacker is imperiled.
With the Patriots moving to a 4-3 base defense this year, it isn’t drop-dead imperative to stock more linebackers. The Patriots have stocked themselves with linemen in the offseason (Steve Martin, Rick Lyle), and retained Willie McGinest when it was thought he would either be lost to Houston or be released due to cap considerations. But adding another tight end to the mix when linebacker is so thin doesn’t make the Graham selection a smart one on the surface.
But Belichick and Pioli proved everyone wrong last year by taking Richard Seymour over David Terrell. Graham is a definite blue chip selection, but it addresses a position in which the Patriots didn’t have a great need, or a need at all.
The Patriots did address a need area with their second round pick, and took a wide receiver (this column predicted a wideout with the second round pick). With Utah’s Cliff Russell and Michigan’s Marquise Walker still available, the Patriots instead opted for a tiny Louisville wideout, Deion Branch. Branch is 5-9 with 4.47 speed, and joins a team that already employs two 5-9 receivers. Branch grades out as a “David Patten minus the speed”. ESPN’s Mel Kiper called Branch “the best wide receiver to come out of Louisville since Ernest Givens”.
So, unlike the first round pick which resulted in a good player at an unneeded position, the Patriots took a reach player at a needed position in round two. And like 2001, Patriot draftniks did more complaining than praising.
As defending Super Bowl champs, the Patriot brass can look at their fandom and exclaim, “We know what we’re doing!” and not get laughed at. But the selections of Graham and Branch when men like Harris or Walker were more logical and expected will cause a few eyebrows raised across Patriot Nation.
The Patriots’ day one ended with the Branch pick, as they traded their third round pick to Washington to acquire Graham. The Patriots have five picks on Sunday, two fourths, two fifths and a seventh.
If the draft goal for Belichick is to upgrade the offense, it is a goal with merit. In taking Graham, it gives the Patriots their best chance to rejuvenate a position that Coates graced for so many years, as did Francis, Marv Cook and Lin Dawson did before him. Branch’s biggest negatives are his size and his lack of familiarity. Branch was graded out as a day two pick, and certainly was not the only player taken earlier than most every figured.
Being defending Super Bowl champs, Belichick and Pioli could have been following a “best athlete available” strategy all draft long. Graham fits that mold perfectly. Branch really does not. While some publications might go so far as to call Branch “another Troy Brown”, one has to wonder if the Patriots snagged them another Tony Gaiter.
And through all of this, Bledsoe’s work address remains on N. Washington Avenue in Foxborough, for now.
Buffalo never blinked. Dallas didn’t. Cincinnati didn’t. Washington did, but not for Bledsoe. Oakland didn’t. Bledsoe stays.
The Patriots did good by holding out for Bledsoe’s real value, which never was offered. Bledsoe and team now wait until June 1, when the next wave of players get cut and more offers amenable to the Patriots will perhaps come about. Giving in to Buffalo’s lowball offers would have been disastrous.
Meanwhile, the defense rests, and the Patriots are now the AFC clearinghouse for tight ends. They are to that position what Philadelphia is to defensive backs.
The over-under on tight ends taken by New England on Sunday is 3. Pony up, and good luck.
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