What’s up with the tight end position?

Watson Dawg.jpg

Want to know what the Patriots saw in Benjamin Watson back in 2004? Look at that magazine cover, and the word splattered across the front tells you all you need to know.

Watson ran a 4.5 at the combine, and some stopwatches at his Pro Day had him under 4.4 there. He was, at 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds with a mind as sharp and solid as his build, one of those tantalizing prospects that hadn’t hit his potential. He played four college seasons, and failed to crack 1,000 career yards, and his best year at Georgia produced just 31 catches.

And maybe those are the numbers the Patriots should’ve paid attention to all along. It’s hard, at the end of the day, to call this pick a success, when the next three to go in the 2004 draft were Karlos Dansby, Chris Snee and Igor Olshansky, and when Bob Sanders was plucked 12 picks later.


He had trouble earning quarterback Tom Brady’s trust early in his career, and had issues dropping the ball throughout. He improved as a blocker, but when that became the strength of his game, it only highlighted how potential in other areas never really added up to the production the Patriots hoped for.

It also highlights New England’s problems evaluating the position.

Consider this: Fifteen tight ends went in the first round in the Aughts. Only seven have failed to post a 50-catch season. Two of those — Dustin Keller and Brandon Pettigrew — are within their first two years in the league, and promise to crack the milestone soon. Two others — Watson and Daniel Graham (Update 11 a.m.: Graham was an excellent blocker, to be fair, which I should’ve pointed out to begin with) — were Patriots.

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.

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