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Thomas isn't feeling crowded

Patriot welcomes competition at TE

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / May 13, 2009
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David Thomas learned that the Patriots had added yet another player at his position in a face-to-face meeting. He walked into Gillette Stadium to participate in the team's offseason conditioning program and saw an unfamiliar face, that of tight end Alex Smith.

Smith, acquired April 30 from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in exchange for a 2010 fifth-round pick, was the second tight end the Patriots picked up this offseason. On the first day of free agency, they added Chris Baker. Throw in last year's starter, Benjamin Watson, and it would appear that Thomas could be the odd man out in 2009.

Humble and helpful guy that he is, Thomas volunteered to tutor Smith on the Patriots' system in preparation for the team's organized team activity sessions and minicamp.

"He seems like a great guy and a hard-working guy," said Thomas.

Don't interpret that act of altruism as the 25-year-old Thomas resigning himself to the role of roster fodder or forgotten fourth tight end, however, as he enters his fourth NFL season.

"Well, when all this started happening, I thought back to something Rodney Harrison said to me my rookie year: 'Every year your first goal has to be to make the roster,' and I'll go into this year with that approach," Thomas said.

"The first thing you got to do to help the team is make the roster. That's something I learned from him, and I carry into every offseason and season. There are a lot of guys around [at tight end], and, hopefully, that will make us push each other harder and make each other better."

This is a make-or-break season for Thomas, who like Watson and Smith has a contract that expires after this season. Thomas's agent, Jordan Woy, said in response to an e-mail query about contract negotiations that the sides "have not discussed an extension at this time."

After an 11-catch rookie season in 2006, Thomas had just 10 catches combined the last two seasons. In 2007, he played in only two games, re-breaking the right foot he had fractured during the offseason program.

Last season, he played in 15 games (he was a healthy scratch against Seattle in Week 14), but had only nine receptions for 93 yards. Thomas's most memorable play was an ill-timed unnecessary roughness penalty that stalled a potential game-winning or game-tying drive in a loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 9.

One advantage for Thomas is that for the first time since his rookie campaign he's been able to have full-throttle participation in the offseason program because he's not coming off a major injury.

"I think the offseason is when you put the work in to prepare for the season," said Thomas, who will participate in the team's passing camp that starts Monday. "If you're not able to compete and do it with full conviction and full speed, it's tough. I don't want to say it sets you behind, but there are guys that are going full-speed and getting better.

"I think being healthy, and being able to do the whole offseason program with [strength and conditioning] coach [Mike] Woicik and [assistant strength and conditioning] coach [Harold] Nash is a valuable thing for me and for everybody."

Thomas has the talent to be a weapon at tight end, as evidenced by his performance against Jacksonville his rookie year, when he had five catches for 83 yards and a diving touchdown reception, the only one of his career.

"Obviously, that was a good game for me and something I'm proud of, but this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business," said Thomas. "Putting one game together doesn't get it done in this league. It's about being consistent. I have to prove I can do that week in and week out, whether it's catching a lot of balls, run blocking, pass blocking, whatever."

The former third-round pick figures if he does that, the rest will take care of itself. He could force coach Bill Belichick to consider keeping all four tight ends, so it could be premature to write Thomas's epitaph as a Patriot.

"Bill always says what your role is on the team is what you make it," said Thomas. "He makes the decisions based on what you've done and your production. We have to do our best and compete, and whoever is on the team and out there is his ultimate decision, and it will be based on what is best for the team."

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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