Back in Week 6 of the 2007 season, the Patriots traveled to Dallas for the much-hyped showdown of then 5-0 teams.
In the second quarter, TE Benjamin Watson hauled in a routine pass from QB Tom Brady before being tackled from behind by Cowboys S Roy Williams. On the play, Watson hurt his ankle and did not return to action that day. The injury lingered throughout the year, causing Watson to miss time sporadically.
As noted by a number of news outlets recently, Watson underwent offseason surgery to fix the problem. But during an appearance at Gillette Stadium last week, Watson showed no ill effects from the surgery. He even talked extensively about his whirlwind vacation, from which he just returned, to Israel, Egypt, and Dubai.
Although he didn't address his injury situation, Watson is now back in Foxborough taking part in the team's offseason strength and conditioning program and said he's looking forward to the 2008 season.
But injuries remain a concern for the Patriots tight end position. Third-year pro David Thomas spent nearly his entire sophomore season on injured reserve with a foot injury, and longtime veteran Kyle Brady was in and out of the lineup last year due to injury. Throughout the season, the Pats signed free agents Marcellus Rivers and Stephen Spach to fill the void.
Rivers, however, wasn't a long-term solution, 13-year vet Brady was released a month ago, and practice squad player Jason Rader was never called up to the active roster. Rader signed recently with Atlanta, who's new GM, Thomas Dimitroff, was familiar with Rader during Dimitroff's time in New England (as recently as last year, Dimitroff served as Director of College Scouting).
So, that leaves Watson, Thomas, and Spach as the only tight ends on the Pats roster right now. That's likely to change by the time training camp rolls around in late July.
Several quality free agent tight ends were available when the signing period began in late February, but New England chose not to sign any players at that position. It's more likely they'll select at least one in April's NFL Draft – they've done so every year of head coach Bill Belichick's tenure except 2007.
Ideally, a coach would like his tight ends to be able to run block, pass protect, and catch passes downfield. Watson and Thomas are known more for their receiving ability, though Watson is often employed as a blocker in short-yardage and obvious running situations.
Spach saw such limited action as a Patriot that it's difficult to assess which are his best qualities at the moment. He may be given more of an opportunity to showcase himself in camp and the preseason.
That may lead some to believe that, if the Patriots do draft a tight end, it may be one who's strength is more on the blocking side, the role the mammoth Brady was asked to play when he was brought in last year. However, tight end appears to be a deep crop in this year's draft, with several athletic players who have shown the ability to block and catch.
USC's Fred Davis, Notre Dame's John Carlson, Michigan State's Kellen Davis, and Tennessee's Brad Cottam are among those who could fit the bill. If any of these names are still on the board when the Pats select early on day two of the Draft (April 26 and 27), they could wind up in New England.
Of these, Cottam is the biggest, physically (6-8, 270), but his history of injuries in college could be a drawback.
*For more on the tight end position, look for Tom Casale's Draft Prospect Preview, coming soon here on Patriots.com.