As they have done with most aspects of the game, New England has refined the running back-by-committee approach to state of the art level. Since 2006 various combinations of Corey Dillon, Kevin Faulk, Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, LaMont Jordan, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis have collectively given the Patriots solid production and helped them weather a series of injuries at the position. 2009 may be their best committee yet as Fred Taylor joins Faulk, Maroney, Morris and Green-Ellis.
Could a similar approach be tried at tight end? And if so, would it be more by choice or by necessity?
To some degree, the Patriots and most other NFL teams already employ such an approach at tight end, especially in short-yardage and goal-line packages, using two or even three tight ends. The Patriots have been particularly clever in this way, often using non-tight ends such as Russ Hochstein and, most famously, the dearly departed Mike Vrabel. (I don't know about the rest of you but I'm going to miss seeing Vrabel on offense almost as much as I will seeing him on defense).
But the main reason a position-by-committee approach might make sense is because of a serious decline in productivity at the tight end position. A quick look at some Patriots' statistics shows that in 2006 the tight ends caught 81 passes (Benjamin Watson had 39, Daniel Graham 21, and David Thomas 11). In 2007 that number fell to 46 (Watson had 36, Kyle Brady 9, Thomas 1) before plummeting last season to 31 (Watson 22, Thomas 9).
So, in just three seasons, receptions by tight ends fell off by well over half from 81 to 31. Why? Several reasons:
- The additions of Randy Moss, Wes Welker (and Donte Stallworth in 2007) gave the Pats a collection of wideouts like they had never had before and transformed the passing offense into a more vertical attack, minimizing the receiving role of tight ends in the offense.
- The departure of Daniel Graham (though not a great player) created a void that Kyle Brady never really filled in 2007 and that no one did last season.
- At the same time, injuries played a huge role, too. Watson missed large chunks of the last two seasons and Thomas missed nearly all of 2007. Tom Brady's injury may have had an effect, too, since Matt Cassel seemed to look to other (fewer?) targets than Brady did, seemingly never developing a comfort level with his tight ends.
Mindful of these trends and facts, the Patriots have beefed up the position during the off season, signing free agent Chris Baker from the Jets, bringing back Tyson DeVree who spent most of last year on the practice squad and got in some late-season snaps, and picking up Brad Listorti on waivers from Atlanta. They may not be through, either, as the draft may bring another tight end. After all, the Patriots have selected a tight end in the draft every year Bill Belichick has been here EXCEPT the last two seasons.
Where does all this leave the Patriots heading into 2009? With some serious questions at the position. Watson and Thomas are both in the final years of their contracts and both need to establish themselves this year in different ways--Watson needs to prove that he is an starting-caliber NFL tight end; Thomas needs to prove that he is an NFL-caliber player, period. DeVree and Listorti may be long shots to make the final roster but could provide competition at camp. Baker at the very least should provide solid depth as a receiver and a blocker at a position that has been injury-riddled. At his best, he may claim the starting position if Watson and Thomas falter. Depending on what happens in the draft, there may be a rookie to work in here as well.
This brings us back to the committee concept. If, as happened at running back, no one really establishes himself as "the guy" at tight end, the Patriots might make a virtue out of a necessity by simply rotating Watson, Baker, Thomas and perhaps another in and out, keeping fresh legs in the game at all times, offering a variety of receiving threats, and giving the majority of the snaps to whoever seems to be the most productive--which might change from week to week.
In a perfect world, Watson will bounce back and solidify his grip on the starting position, Thomas will finally realize the potential he has only sporadically flashed thus far, and Baker will provide excellent depth behind or alongside the other two. If all three play well, the Patriots would be well-positioned--as they already are at running back--to absorb an injury to a tight end because of their depth. The committee approach would be by choice in such a scenario, as it is now at running back.
But even in a less than perfect world where Watson doesn't dominate, Thomas is still inconsistent, and Baker doesn't give them quite as much as hoped for, the Patriots still may find--more from necessity than choice in this outlook-- that a tight end-by-committee can be effective for them for the same reason it works at running back, simply because the whole could be greater than the sum of the parts.