State of the New England Patriots Nation: Tight Ends

Ben Watson and Chris Baker. Ghost 1 and Ghost 2. Where were they all season? One of the most important aspects of a successful Patriots offense is how well the Tight Ends are utilized in the game plan. Despite the seeming lack of incorporation into our offense (also known as "lack of passes thrown their way because that's all we really notice"), the Patriots were the only team in the league that had two tight ends on 60+% of offensive plays. That's right. Even though they weren't catching the ball, both Watson AND (surprise!) Baker were on the field for 60+% of the offensive snaps- EACH.

Here's are some facts for you:

  1. We won 5 out of the 6 games a Tight End caught a TD- the one loss was in Overtime.
  2. Another fact: We won every game that our Tight Ends combined for over 50 yards receiving. (If you drop that yards barrier to 46+ combined yards, we won 6 our of 7, our only loss coming to Indianapolis)
  3. Ever since we picked up Moss and Welker, our Tight End production has dropped- this past season was Watson's best since 2006.

So what does this mean for us as a team? Read to find out!

1. Ben Watson 6-3, 255 lbs. 29 years of Age, 6 year veteran.

Stats: 29 receptions, 404 yards and 5 TDs. 3 Dropped Passes

How he did: Statistically speaking, this was Watson's best season since 2006. Sure, he had a greater reception count in '07 and had 1 extra TD, but Watson got more yardage on fewer passes, while averaging a first down 2 out of every 3 reception. Watson saw 784 snaps, but only saw 40 passes come his way (on the other extreme, Washington's Chris Cooley saw 354 snaps and had 41 passes go in his direction). It's obvious that Watson wasn't utilized as much as he should have been in the passing game. In the pass blocking and run blocking game, the Patriots would often defer to Chris Baker (Baker blocked on almost 100 more plays than Watson).

Where he did well:

  1. In our victories, Watson caught 18 passes for 286 yards and a 15.9 yards/reception. He also caught 4 of his 5 TDs in victories.
  2. In the first 8 games of the season, Watson caught 19 receptions for 271 yards and 4 TDs. It's clear his production dropped as soon as injuries began to mount on the O-Line. (Week 8 is around the time Light, Kaczur and Neal all got injured and Watson had to help out Vollmer)
  3. Contrary to the Patriots as a whole, Watson excelled in the 2nd half, receiving 16 for 212 yards and 4 TDs.
  4. Great first down receiver, catching 15 for 261 yards.
  5. Most productive out of 3 receiver sets, with 13 reception, 183 yards and 4 TDs.
  6. 0 Fumbles!

Where he can improve:

  1. While pass blocking, he allowed 5 QB Pressures and 1 Sack on 52 attempts. That means Brady was hurried every 11 plays Watson was blocking.
  2. Was not utilized on 3rd and short or 3rd and long (as in 0 receptions)
  3. Average in completion percentage of Tight Ends on 60% offensive play count (13th best completion rate out of 27)
  4. 3rd to last out of the same Tight End pool in yards after catch (@ 2.9 YAC. Daniel Graham [remember him?] averaged 7.5 YAC)
  5. When he had the ball, he only forced 1 tackler to miss. That's not good enough.
  6. Only had 11 receptions, for 118 yards and 1 TD in our losses.

What does this mean?: Players on the Patriots will be resigned if they're multi-dimensional players who can participate and step up when asked to. Watson is unable to perform as a blocker, so when our O-line gets injured (as it will again), Watson will be rendered almost useless in our offense and our TEs are asked to block. I think we can say good-bye to Watson this off-season.

 

2. Chris Baker 6-3, 258 lbs. 30 years of Age, 8 year veteran.

Stats: 14 receptions, 142 yards, 2 TDs. 0 Dropped Passes

How he did: Contrary to Watson, this past season could be considered Baker's worst since his rookie year. He caught 3 of his 14 passes, 45 of his yards and 1 of his TDs in garbage season time (last two weeks). He was basically a non-factor in our offensive passing schemes, despite the obvious talent he displayed during pre-season. He DID, however, have a nose for blocking as he blocked on 72% of his offensive snaps. In fact, his best game came in week 3 against Atlanta, going for 2 for 42 and a TD. He barely saw action after that.

Where he did well:

  1. On 121 pass block attempts, Baker allowed only 2 QB Hits and 3 QB Pressures, for a rate of 1 hurry out of every 24 snaps. That's pretty good for a TE who averaged 45 snaps a game (and especially in comparison to Watson).
  2. Both of his TDs came in victories where we won by 15+ points.
  3. He split his numbers perfectly down the middle by halftime, going 7 receptions for 71 yards and 1 TD in the half AND the second half of games.
  4. Although he only caught 14 passes, he had the 2nd best completion rate out of all TEs who were on the field for 60% of their teams' offensive snaps.
  5. 0 Dropped passes or fumbles!

Where he can improve:

  1. Was rarely used in the passing game if we were behind (3 receptions for 21 yards).
  2. Last out of all 60+% Snaps Tight Ends in number of receptions (11 receptions behind 2nd to last place).
  3. Last place in Yards after Catch.

What does this mean?: Baker's under contract still, so expect him to be on the roster next year in his blocking role. Since Watson will probably be gone, expect Baker's offensive production to slightly increase. However, Baker's season performance does little to instill confidence in this position.

 

What does this mean for the off season?

In my opinion, Tight End is the weakest position on our team (I would call it worse than our pass pressure/rush). We will DEFINITELY upgrade this position over the off-season, whether it is by draft or by free agency. Unfortunately, Ben Watson is the best unrestricted free agent TE in the league, so if we're going to upgrade our TE spot, expect it to cost us a draft pick or two. Since picking up Alex Smith cost us a 5th rounder this year, I'd expect us to shy away from trading a pick for a TE again this off-season. I would say we'd more likely look to the draft to answer our TE problems.

We'll be looking for a receiving TE or (even better!) a Jack-Of-All-Trades Tight End.

Look for us to pick up Aaron Hernandez from Florida (6-3, 250 lbs) who is a great receiving TE, but a weak blocking TE. I can see him immediately stepping into Ben Watson's role and doing just as well. Perhaps, if we alter our offensive scheme back to "best open receiver", he could do even better than Watson. Hernandez did extremely well in college, despite the fact that Tebow always stared him down before throwing to him (and his slow release allowed defenses to get into better position).

Dennis Pitta, from BYU (6-4, 245), is another option. He was a great receiver as a TE, has solid blocking skills and (best of all) should be available in the 4th round, giving us more freedom of selection in the 2nd round. Colin Peek from Alabama would be another mid-round option, but he is more of a blocking than a receiving TE (which we have in Baker).


Verdict: Definite upgrade to happen in the draft, in either the 2nd (Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski from Arizona) or 4th round (Pitta).

 

Read more: Quarterback Situation, Wide Receiver Situation and Running Back Situation

Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus and ESPN.com.

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