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Tightly bunched

Patriots have given Watson a helping of competition

Having a surplus of tight ends on the Patriots roster hasn’t rankled Benjamin Watson. “I’m not entering this camp any differently,’’ he said. Having a surplus of tight ends on the Patriots roster hasn’t rankled Benjamin Watson. “I’m not entering this camp any differently,’’ he said. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / August 11, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - Judging by training camp, it’s apparent the tight end is going to play a significant role in the Patriots offense - one of the reasons there are five of them on the roster. However, just how prominently the incumbent starter, Benjamin Watson, figures into the team’s plans appears less certain.

The 28-year-old Watson is up against tough competition. The Patriots fortified the position by signing free agent Chris Baker and trading with the Buccaneers for Alex Smith. In a recent radio interview, Bill Belichick called it the best competition he has had at tight end since he became Patriots coach in 2000. Watson, Baker, and Smith are joined by David Thomas, a 2006 third-round pick, and Tyson DeVree, who forced Thomas to the bench as a healthy scratch for a game last season.

Now entering his sixth season, Watson, a former first-round pick, has yet to fulfill his potential. He is both blessed and cursed by his eye-popping athleticism. He will forever be remembered for chasing down Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey in the playoffs following the 2005 season and is constantly chasing the expectations that come with that type of raw physical ability.

In his career, Watson has started 40 of 55 games, recording 138 receptions for 1,698 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Watson, who is in the final year of his contract, is coming off a season in which he had his lowest production since his rookie campaign (2004), which lasted only one game because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament; last season, Watson caught 22 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns.

Add it all up and Watson may be fighting for a job.

“Every year there is competition for roster spots, not just at tight end but at any position you look at there is always a competition,’’ said Watson. “That’s the nature of the National Football League. There are a certain amount of roster spots and you have a lot of guys who are very good football players and so there is always a fight for those spots. I’m not entering this camp any differently. I think everybody at every position is fighting for a job as they should be.’’

Health has handcuffed Watson during his career and during the training camp tight end derby. In five seasons he has yet to play a full 16-game slate, and until yesterday, he had not practiced in a non-walkthrough since July 31.

Watson acknowledged missing time is “very frustrating’’ and he feels a little bit behind.

“Oh definitely, any time you’re not out there it’s tough,’’ he said. “The important thing is to realize it’s only been ‘X’ amount of days, but in camp everything feels so long. I’m just trying to do the best I can in the training room to get back out there. That’s my main goal.’’

The team could end up keeping all five tight ends. With the Patriots without a true fullback, there is certainly a lot of playing time to go around for this group. There will be no shortage of ways the tight end will be utilized this year - they’ll be on the line, flexed out, used as H-backs, and maybe even put in the backfield.

“It’s awesome,’’ said Watson. “As a tight end, I think we’re all receivers who got too big . . . We always want to be a part of the offense and any time they give us a chance to do more things. That’s the fun thing about playing tight end - you get to be involved in the running game and the passing game.’’

Watson stacks up well against his competition. Baker is more of a blocker. Smith is more of a receiver and Watson is probably the best combination of both. Thomas and DeVree are versatile tight ends with less accomplished résumés than their rivals.

Belichick said it would be wrong to pigeon-hole any of the tight ends, though.

“I think they all can do everything to some degree,’’ Belichick said. “I don’t think they’re so specialized that they can’t be competitive in another area: run blocking, pass blocking, route running, catching, adjusting, doing different jobs, being versatile and all that. I think they can all do that to some degree. One guy might be a little faster and one guy might be a little stronger, but I’d say, relatively speaking, that they all can do everything they need to do, maybe to a little different grade.

“We’ll see how all that turns out. We’ve only been at camp a little over a week. We’ve got a long way to go there.’’

Watson took playful offense when an inquisitor asked him how he felt about the team’s offseason “upgrade’’ of the tight end position. Watson turned the tables, sternly asking the reporter if “upgrade’’ was the word he wanted to go with, before jovially saying he was just joking.

He handled the awkward situation the same way he is handling the tight end competition - with class and professionalism.

“There have been times when positions have been upgraded by adding depth,’’ said Watson. “It happens throughout the year. It happens every year, so it really doesn’t change my approach. It doesn’t change anybody else’s approach. My job stays the same. No matter if there are 20 guys trying to play tight end or one guy trying to play tight end.’’

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