It's a little funny to think about, when evaluating the first five first-round picks of this Patriot regime. Three defensive linemen. Three home runs, who got big money from the team coming off their rookie deals. Two tight ends. Two guys who played out their deals, and left New England without much of a fight from the home team.
Here's a look at the list of first-round tight ends in the last decade (overall slot in parentheses):
2000 – Bubba Franks (14), Packers
2000 – Anthony Becht (27), Jets
2001 – Todd Heap (31), Ravens
2002 – Jeremy Shockey (14), Giants
2002 – Daniel Graham (21), Patriots
2002 – Jerramy Stevens (28), Seahawks
2003 – Dallas Clark (24), Colts
2004 – Kellen Winslow (6), Browns
2004 – Benjamin Watson (32), Patriots
2005 – Heath Miller (30), Steelers
2006 – Vernon Davis (6), 49ers
2006 – Marcedes Lewis (28), Jaguars
2007 – Greg Olsen (31), Bears
2008 – Dustin Keller (30), Jets
2009 – Brandon Pettigrew (21), Lions
... You can see it's a little hit-or-miss. Clark and Miller and Heap and now Davis too look like big hits. Keller, playing in a run-heavy offense, looks like he will be. Winslow and Shockey, despite their problems, did produce huge seasons for the teams that drafted them.
But if you ask guys around the league, they'll tell you that this is one hard spot to evaluate. Which might explain the Patriots' struggles.
"I think historically linebackers and tight ends are very difficult to judge, because every team uses those guys in so many different ways, and what you see in college isn’t necessarily what they’re going to have to do in the NFL," said Lions coach Jim Schwartz, who drafted Pettigrew to pair with Matthew Stafford last year. "A lot of players don’t have to take on fullbacks in the run game and when they get to the NFL, they’re gonna be tested there. The offensive linemen are gonna be bigger.
"Tight ends aren’t going to be asked to block some of the big defensive ends they’re gonna be asked to block in the NFL. When they’re asked to do something that’s totally different, or may be totally different than what they did in college, that’s a difficult evaluation."
Interesting, then, that the Patriots have, at least to a degree, shied away from making too many projections with draftable linebackers, but haven't been shy at all about doing it with tight ends (don't forget 2006 third-rounder David Thomas, either).
It'll be interesting to see if New England is willing to spend another high pick on this spot again. Because there's now plenty of reason for the club to be careful.