The tight end spot gained some experience Thursday when New England signed free agent Johnny McWilliams, who is entering his sixth season in the NFL. The Patriots also waived rookie long-snapper Ryan Burch.
McWilliams, listed at 6-4 and 271 pounds, gives the Patriots a huge target for Drew Bledsoe. The former third-round pick for the Arizona Cardinals has recorded 73 catches for 690 yards and nine touchdowns since coming into the league in 1996.
Signed by Minnesota in training camp last season, McWilliams worked his way into the starting lineup midway through the year. The Vikings started out with Andrew Jordan and John Davis ahead of McWilliams on the depth chart, though all three played regularly. Davis replaced Jordan with the first-team early in the year, but when Davis was suspended after being arrested for driving while intoxicated, McWilliams became the top man.
In all, McWilliams started seven of 15 games and had 22 catches for 180 yards and three touchdowns in the high-powered Minnesota offense. His best season was with the Cardinals in 1998, when he started 15 games and had 26 grabs for 284 yards and four touchdowns.
New England already has five tight ends on its roster, but the only one with significant playing time is Rod Rutledge. Rutledge's roster spot was in jeopardy before McWilliams' arrival, and now his days with the Patriots seem even more numbered. In three seasons Rutledge has not been able to prove himself in the receiving game, and the tight end spot needs to be productive in New England's offense.
Other than McWilliams and Rutledge, the Patriots also have second-year men Jermaine Wiggins and Chris Eitzmann, and draft picks Jabari Holloway and Arther Love. Wiggins made an impression at the end of last season with 16 catches for 203 yards and a touchdown in just four games, but he is not yet an established all-around tight end.