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Patriots Prognostication: Belichick's Tight Ends

We covered some of this a while back in Richard Hill's excellent article on the 2009 Tight Ends, so I'll try not to be redundant. Whereas he was looking at the 2009-season personnel and analysing that TE unit, I'll try to divine what Hoodie will do for 2010, based on his previous moves and roster arrangements.

There's been a lot of change on the Tight End front since I started drafting this up, so bear with me when it's been slightly delayed in the writing. It says a lot when you look at Richard's article from only a few weeks back and see the immortal line:

"Ben Watson and Chris Baker. Ghost 1 and Ghost 2. Where were they all season?"

Well, they're certainly not in New England any more. Watson's plying his trade in Cleveland, soon to be Jake Delhomme's go-to guy (poor Ben). Baker is in Seattle, being thrown to by... umm, Matt Hasselback, I suppose. And that currently leaves the Patriots with only ex-Undrafted Free Agent Robbie Agnone and ex-Undrafted Free Agent Rob Myers as the current TEs on the roster. Total production of those two guys in the NFL? Zero receptions. Zero yards. Zero touchdowns.

So! What's going to happen to those TE slots? You know the drill - after the jump...

There's clearly a gap in the TE depth chart at this moment - zero experience at TE in a position where Pats fans have been accustomed to first-round draft choices. Gone is the continuity fans have expected; Daniel Graham and Ben Watson were around since 2003 and won Superbowls. Agnone and Myers haven't even won a reception. So what's going on? Is it time to panic? Will the Pats draft a TE? If so, where?

Consider this. The Pats under Belichick have a looooong history of drafting TEs - eight thus far, and counting. Belichick has drafted more Tight Ends than Defensive Ends, Quarterbacks, Running backs, Wide Receivers and inside Offensive Linemen. In fact, the only position he's taken more of in the draft are Cornerbacks, a total of 11. That's despite Belichick having had a fairly stable TE corps in the second two-thirds of the decade.

It's not just the sheer number, though. It's also the consistency. In Hoodie's first draft in charge - 2000 - he picked up 5th round TE Dave Stachelski and later snagged rookie Jermaine Wiggins from the free agent pool. In 2001, he followed this up with drafting two TEs - fourth-rounder Jabari Holliday and sixth-rounder Arther Love. In 2002, another year another TE - he took Daniel Graham with the first round, 21st pick overall (as well as picking up Christian Fauria in free agency). Despite having this talent in the Tight End ranks, he took another draftee in 2003 - Spencer Nead in the 7th round. In 2004, 1st round, 32nd overall Benjamin Watson joined the stable. Despite having first-rounders Graham and Watson and veteran Fauria on the depth chart, Hoodie drafted a 2005 TE - Mr Irrelevant 7th-rounder Andy Stokes. And in 2006, the Pats snagged another pair in third-rounder David Thomas and fourth-rounder Garrett Mills.

That's a lot of drafted TEs - Belichick could barely stay away from the position - and it's even more poignant when you consider that half of those guys he drafted didn't even make the team due to the quality of incumbents on the TE depth chart. But Belichick kept drafting them; TE remained a highly sought-after and scouted position, and Hoodie kept picking rookie TEs and churning them through his rosters and training camps, year in and year out, from 2000 to 2006.

Yet in recent years (2007-2009), the Pats haven't targeted the TE position with a draftee at all. Eight draftees and a couple of UFA pickups from 2000-2006, but zero from 2006 onwards. Anyone else find that odd? It can't be a coincidence that 2007-2009 are the years the Pats have had Randy Moss and Wes Welker catching the football, and that timeframe also roughly coincides with the departure of Charlie Weiss (and, more importantly, the evolution away from Weiss's screen-based playbook through to the 2007 All-out Brady Air-raid).

I suggest two reason for the de-emphasis on Tight Ends as pass-catchers. Firstly, personnel. The Pats had Moss to get all the goal-line TDs; they had Welker for all the 10-yard first-down completion passes, and they had Kevin Faulk for all the underneath routes. That doesn't leave a lot for a TE to do - are you honestly going to take the ball out of the hands of Randy Moss or Kevin Faulk or Wes Welker when you need a TD or a third-down completion? Not to the level of a 1000 yard, 60 reception season you're not.

Secondly, you've got the change in offensive Co-ordinators and strategy. The Charlie Weiss offence was all clever blocking schemes on bubble-screens and big men moving around in tight zones very quickly. It was a lot of misdirection and blocking that got phenomenal productivity out of so-so receivers. A lot of that was because you'd stack a Tackle or a Tight End in front of a Wide Receiver, and the WR would let the big man open doors. That meant that TEs had to be big, quick, and preferably good blockers - Graham and Watson fit the bill.

The crux of it is that when Weiss abandoned ship to coach at Notre Dame, he did leave a lot of his base offence in place. McDaniels took over and fairly successfully managed a Weiss-style offence through to the end of 2006. Watson had his most productive year that year, the last that resembled a Weiss-scheme - good TEs and no-name WRs running Weiss-penned routes.

But thanks to Polian's rule-change, the 2006-2007-era NFL was evolving - the tight press-coverage by CBs on the line that had previously ruled the roost was now effectively illegal. That had the kick-on effect of allowing passing attacks to be a lot more aerial (which was the intent, after all); welcome the era of Manning-ball! It was only a matter of time before the Pats were forced to abandon the dink-and-dunk screen-based Weiss-ball and take up a similar stance under McDaniels, a time of full-blown passing.

So what did that mean for those TEs? All of a sudden, those TEs like Ben Watson weren't being called upon to open doors for smaller, less talented WR like David Givens or Troy Brown. Instead they were playing second fiddle to guys like Wes Welker and Randy Moss. In the blink of an eye, Watson was now just an extra lineman.

And that's also the time that Hoodie stopped drafting TEs, if you remember back to that breakdown. When they became extra linemen, Hoodie stopped wanting them so badly from the draft. He didn't specifically need those big, very quick, very good blocking, occasional pass-catcher TEs any more; any old TE would do the job. Since they were basically linemen, he only needed to pick up the good blockers, and that's what he did.

2010 Predictions

So, the business end of this. What's Hoodie going to do?

I see two possibilities.

1) Belichick will go out and snag the best pass-catching TE around in the draft, probably with a first- or second-rounder, and re-integrate TE into the offence by changing the scheme a little. I'll call this upgrade. There are solid reasons for upgrading. Kevin Faulk is probably on his last year. Wes Welker is injured and may well be out for at least part of the season, and perhaps even the whole year. That means that there's suddenly a gap in the ability to get yards through the air in underneath and slant routes - passes inside the first-down mark, effectively. A pass-catching TE could potentially rectify this; perhaps Jermaine Gresham himself.

2) Hoodie hasn't drafted any TEs in a while, especially not in the high rounds. He won't this time. Belichick's taken bit-part free agents and kicked the tyres on them in the last few years, using them primarily as blockers and slightly more mobile linemen - he'll do it again. He could also use some of those lower round picks to snag some TEs - there's a few good blocking guys projected from the 4th round on down. If he picks up blocking free agents or invests in low-round blocking TEs, I'll call it a downgrade of TE.

My personal belief is the latter - a systematic downgrade of the importance of the Tight End position. Hoodie's new breed of TEs are blockers first, pass-catchers second; he'll likely kick the tyres on a few free agent blocking-TEs with decent hands (think of that Kyle Brady mould), and possibly snag some low-round TEs to fill out the roster. They might be a pleasant surprise and be capable of catching a few footballs, but that would be an added bonus, not a prerequisite. I sincerely doubt Belichick will splash out on another first-round TE (a la Graham and Watson) while there are other gaps in the roster, so I don't see the Pats moving after Gresham, et al. It's just startling that Belichick hasn't drafted a single TE after the shift away from the Charlie Weiss system; not even a 7th round speculator. That suggests to me that the value of the Tight End in New England went out with Weiss.