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Small role may produce star

Patriots putting Graham in position to stand out

Daniel Graham was the second of an NFL draft-record three tight ends selected in the first round in 2002. But he ranks fourth in that year's tight end class in production. The Giants' Jeremy Shockey, at No. 14 the only tight end selected ahead of No. 21 pick Graham, has 122 catches for 1,429 yards and 4 touchdowns, and Miami's fourth-round selection, Randy McMichael (88, 1,083, 6), and Oakland's second-rounder, Doug Jolley (63, 659, 3), also have better receiving numbers over two seasons than Graham's 53 receptions, 559 yards, and 5 touchdowns.

Graham's statistics would look much better if not for the dropped passes that have plagued him throughout his young career. Thus, in an effort to get more from Graham, the Patriots are asking less of him.

Graham primarily played the "Y" position, the standard tight end alignment, as a rookie. Last year, he was asked to play both Y and H-back (the in-motion blocking fullback/tight end in single-back sets), known as the "F" position in the Patriots' offense. Because the F involves more responsibility, the Patriots believe the shift of position may have led to hesitation by Graham and contributed to his inconsistency.

Enter Benjamin Watson. When, for the second time in three years, the Patriots used a first-round pick on a tight end, some saw it as an indictment of Graham. (It wasn't; New England often employs two or three tight ends at once.) Others wondered if Watson's presence would motivate Graham. Perhaps it has or will, but at the very least it should emancipate Graham from the mental stress of having to play two complex positions. Watson, with his size and speed, appears to be a good fit for the F, allowing Graham, who is a solid blocker, to focus on the Y, with veteran Christian Fauria playing in both spots.

By clearly defining Graham's role, the Patriots are trying to take some of the thinking out of his game in the hope that he'll be able to take over games the way he did as a senior at Colorado, when he earned the John Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end. He showed that spark last year against Cleveland, when caught seven passes for 110 yards and was selected AFC offensive player of the week.

Expect to see a more aggressive Graham this season. His newfound confidence was on display at last month's minicamp, when, with Watson out with a strained left Achilles' tendon, Graham stole the show with several acrobatic catches.

"The opportunities that he's had to run routes, catch the ball, make adjustments, hot reads, and audibles, he's just handling them a little bit quicker," Bill Belichick said of Graham during minicamp. "I just think he's a little bit more confident. He's done it a little bit more and he's just executing it a little bit better at this point."

Off and on

Further evidence that the term "NFL offseason" is an oxymoron: Last week at Gillette Stadium, while many league personnel were away on vacation during what is the closest thing to downtime during the summer, healthy Patriots players were put through Scouting Combine-like timing and testing (i.e., the 40-yard dash, 20-yard shuttle, and bench press), the results of which are unavailable. The Patriots test before training camp in order to gauge players' improvement (or, in some cases, lack thereof) from the offseason workout program . . . A month before the start of offseason workouts and continuing for about six weeks, the Patriots' veteran receivers (Deion Branch, Troy Brown, David Givens, Bethel Johnson, and J.J. Stokes) gathered once a week to work on their running technique at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury. They took the same initiative after the '02 season, except then they weren't coming off a Super Bowl win. "The best thing about this group is that everybody pushes each other," Branch said. There will a lot of bodies pushing each other for the fifth and perhaps final receiver spot: fifth-round pick P.K. Sam, free agents Michael Jennings and Ricky Bryant, NFL Europe star Chas Gessner, and veterans Stokes and David Patten. The idea behind the 90-minute workouts was for the receivers to improve their stride so they can do a better job of making catches without slowing down, making them more dangerous in the open field . . . In addition to the Big Four (potential unrestricted free agents Adam Vinatieri, Larry Izzo, Joe Andruzzi, and Matt Light), the Patriots are looking at big decisions next offseason regarding three important restricted free agents: Tom Ashworth, Givens, and Jarvis Green. The two names that jump out are Ashworth and Light, the starting offensive tackles; they could jump ship via free agency after this year, although the Patriots could keep Light off the market by placing the "franchise" tag on him. It may be in the team's best interest to do something now that will keep Ashworth and Givens, currently exclusive rights free agents, off the restricted market next year. Remember, Ashworth was not drafted, which means that unless the Patriots give him at least the middle (first-round) tender next year, another team can sign him without owing the Patriots any compensation. And Givens was a seventh-round pick. One way of protecting themselves, while rewarding the players, would be for the Patriots to sign Ashworth and Givens -- who have not signed their one-year, $380,000 contracts and won't until just before the start of camp later this month -- to, say, two-year extensions worth $1.8 million-$2 million, or about what they'd make anyway this year and next year. The downside to this scenario is that the players' salary cap numbers for this season would increase. Still, it may be worth it (not to mention cheaper) in the long run, assuming they remain starters. The Patriots didn't take an offensive lineman in the draft, so apparently they believe in Ashworth, Russ Hochstein, etc. Just an idea, folks. The reality of the situation is that the Patriots aren't unlike most teams, in that they don't do anything to which they aren't obligated unless it's good business for them. Besides, New England doesn't have enough money free at this juncture (about $1.4 million under the cap as of last week) to sign six more rookies and extend a bunch of contracts.

Snap back

The player returning from injury who is most critical to the Patriots' title defense may not be prize outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin but rather long snapper Lonie Paxton. The punt and field goal teams' success starts with Paxton, who is coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee suffered seven months ago in a game against Miami at Gillette Stadium. Paxton, who besides being one of the league's most accurate and dependable long snappers is effective in coverage and protection, is especially vital this year, what with New England bringing in a new punter/holder in Josh Miller. Paxton worked on the side during minicamp, and last week he said he's taking his rehabilitation day by day. "I'm not making any predictions with anything," Paxton said when asked if he would be ready to go by training camp, by which time it will have been close to eight months since his injury. "You know Belichick doesn't like us talking about that. Every day I'm in there getting treatment. I'm doing what the doctors tell me, and they're pleased with how I'm coming. I'm throwing strikes; I've just got to get my running back." Whenever Paxton felt sorry for himself, he had his roommate in Riverside, Calif., Brook Duquesnel, to bring him back to reality. In 1998, while Paxton was at Sacramento State, then 21-year-old Duquesnel, a high school friend of Paxton's, broke his back in a snowboarding accident, paralyzing him from the waist down. "Every time I'm thinking, `My knee hurts,' I've got somebody to look at and realize it's not that bad," Paxton said. "Every time I want to complain, I want to hit myself. There are much worse things [to have happen] than a simple knee." Months after his accident, Duquesnel's family and friends raised $7,000 and purchased a special four-wheel downhill mountain bike for Duquesnel to ride competitively. A year and a half ago, with Duquesnel wanting to help others like him compete in extreme sports and Paxton wanting to extend his charitable endeavors beyond visiting children at hospitals and schools, the two founded the Active Force Foundation (www.activeforce.org), a nonprofit organization that will design and produce extreme sports equipment for disabled athletes. AFF raised $7,000 last month through a golf tournament in Sacramento and is planning an awareness day for later this month in Boston. "He's a big inspiration to me," Paxton said of Duquesnel. "When I'm getting an opportunity to play in the NFL, and I take a step back and look at him, it reminds me of how fortunate I am to be in this position." . . . After sounding, frankly, just a bit out of touch in complaining to ESPN.com that he had not yet received his Super Bowl MVP Cadillac -- thus leaving him stuck driving a 2002 model -- Tom Brady will get back to saying the right things Friday at the fourth Dads Count Breakfast in Redwood City, Calif. Brady's father, Tom Sr., and older sister Maureen will serve as keynote speakers for the event, organized by the San Mateo County Fatherhood Collaborative, whose aim is to "bring greater awareness and support around fatherhood issues, especially at the professional level." As for the Caddy scandal, ESPN.com reported Friday that Brady's XLR Roadster finally had been delivered to a Massachusetts dealership.

Catching on

Arizona may not post its first winning record since 1998 in its first year under coach Dennis Green, but a Cardinal very well may win the league's offensive rookie of the year award for the second consecutive season. Anquan Boldin won it last year, and a preseason favorite to take home this year's honor is his new running mate at receiver, third overall pick Larry Fitzgerald. Green, for whom Fitzgerald served as a ball boy with the Vikings, recently remarked that "every day Larry makes a catch nobody else in the NFL can make." The Patriots get to see Fitzgerald and the new-look Cardinals, with their three-receiver package that also includes '03 first-round pick Bryant Johnson, in Week 2 at Sun Devil Stadium . . . Fitzgerald and the rest of this year's draft class were in La Costa, Calif., near San Diego, for three days last week for the league's eighth annual rookie symposium. The program included second-year players Dallas Clark (Indianapolis), Terrence Holt (Detroit), Greg Lewis (Philadelphia), and Ricky Manning Jr. (Carolina) discussing life as a rookie; Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw and president Troy Vincent, the Bills' cornerback, speaking to the incoming rookies about taking care of their money; and Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes, now the league's vice president for player development, informing the newcomers about available programs in continuing education and internships. The symposium ended with a football clinic for 250 area youths ages 8-15 . . . If the Lions don't end at three their streak of seasons with double-digit losses, it won't be for a lack of talent on offense. Quarterback Joey Harrington, the third overall pick in 2002, doesn't have many excuses, because he has Charles Rogers, the second selection in last year's draft; Roy Williams, the seventh pick in the first round this year; and tight end Stephen Alexander to throw to, as well as another first-round pick, Kevin Jones, to whom to hand the ball. Jones slipped to the 30th selection, and the Lions traded up with the Chiefs so they could take a running back in the first round for the first time since 1988 (Barry Sanders). The poor 40 times that hurt Jones's draft stock (for that he can thank his father, who trained him) may have helped the Lions land a steal. "I don't care what that 40 time said, I'll put it on everything: He's one of the fastest backs in the league," guard Damien Woody said. "If he gets out in the open, it's a done deal. I've never played with a running back with that type of talent. All he needs is a crack to get into the open." As for the 6-foot-2-inch, 217-pound Williams, Woody said he possesses "Randy Moss-type skills."

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