Ben Watson – 2006 will be a huge season for Watson. He was injured his rookie year so this was basically his first full season of action and he showed a lot of potential by catching 29 passes for 441 yards and four touchdowns. This is a player with all the athletic ability in the world and he's just dying to break out. Watson showed the world his scary combination of size and speed in the Patriots playoff game against Jacksonville where he ran over three Jaguar defenders and outran three more on his way to a 63-yard touchdown reception. Expect to see Watson catch a lot more passes next year and become one of Tom Brady's favorite targets. With all the injuries the Patriots suffered along the offensive line this season, the team was forced to keep their tight ends in more to help in pass protection. New England's offensive line will be healthier and stronger next season. That will allow Watson to become more of a factor as a receiver where he is a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses. Watson did have some drops and fumbles this year so that's something he'll need to work on but as far as athletic ability goes, there are only two or three other tight ends in the NFL that are in Watson's class. If Watson doesn't become a bigger part of the passing game in 2006 and catch at least 50 balls, it's going to be a disappointment because this guy is just too talented to be used as a blocker all the time. It's time for the Patriots to let this beast loose on opposing defenses next year.
Daniel Graham – Graham is more of a blocker than Watson is but when given the chance, he's shown the ability to make some big plays as a receiver too. Graham had arguably the play of the year for the Patriots when he took a tight end screen against and Atlanta and rumbled for a touchdown - jumping and running over every Falcons defender in his way. Some Patriot fans feel Graham – a former first round pick – has been a bit of a disappointment and that athletic play is a major reason why. He shows flashes of impressive plays like that but he doesn't do it on a consistent basis. Not all of that is Graham's fault. He just doesn't get a lot of opportunities as a receiver because the Patriots use him almost like an extra tackle. Graham doesn't have the same kind of speed Watson has to get down the seam but he's good at finding holes in the middle of the zone and running those tight end screens. Graham only ended up with 16 receptions on the season but he was suffering from a shoulder injury at the end of the year that really hindered his performance. The former University of Colorado standout only caught two passes for 37 yards in the Patriots final eight games and he was inactive for five of those contests, so his shoulder must have been in bad shape. Graham's production over his career doesn't justify where he was drafted – he only has 99 catches in four years – but the tight end is a huge part of the Patriots offense, especially as a blocker in the running game. He may not be a superstar but a lot of teams in the NFL wouldn't mind having a 1-2 punch of Watson and Graham at tight end like the Patriots have.
Christian Fauria – While Watson and Graham are cemented as New England's top two tight ends, the questions heading into next season surround Fauria. The master of the one-yard touchdown reception and witty locker room banter is an unrestricted free agent and at age 34, it's not a definite that he'll be back with the Patriots. With the drafting of Graham and Watson, Fauria has seen his reception total drop in each of the last three seasons. This year the veteran only caught eight passes but as the third tight end, he was used more as a blocker than a receiver. It's hard to imagine Fauria will command a lot of money out on the open market, so it's possible he could sign a one-year deal and play a final season in New England. However, if another team steps up and offers Fauria a multi-year contract, he's most likely gone. This one will probably come down to Fauria and the Patriots and not any outside sources. Because he's one of the few Pats who talks to the media and speaks his mind, Fauria is kind of a cult figure around these parts. If Bill Belichick feels like he has one more productive season in him and Fauria wants to stay, he will be back. However, if Belichick thinks there is a better option out there for the Patriots third tight end spot or wants to bring in a younger player at that position then Fauria will end up elsewhere. The one thing about Fauria is he's a team player. He never complained once over the years about his reduced role with the team and he's well liked in the locker room. This is one of the toughest free agent calls to make but don't be surprised if Fauria returns for one final season in New England unless another team gives him an offer he can't refuse.
2006 Outlook: This position is one of the strongest positions on the team with two solid players in Watson and Graham. Graham is a great blocker and decent receiver while Watson is on the verge of having a breakout season in 2006. Look for both players to have increased roles as receivers next year and for the team to move Watson all around to try and get favorable matchups like the Chargers do with Antonio Gates and the Chiefs do with Tony Gonzales. The only question is whether or not Fauria returns. One thing of note – this is not a big year for tight ends in free agency – so that could persuade the Patriots to sign the veteran for one more season. If the Patriots lose Fauria and don't sign a free agent, look for them to select a tight end in the middle rounds of this year's draft. Fans have been asking to see more production from the tight ends and as long as the offensive line stays healthy next season, 2006 could be the year of the tight end in New England.