The Patriots might be Super Bowl champions, but Head Coach Bill Belichick knows that his team isn't likely to finish another season with nine straight wins with an offense that was performing as it was down the stretch last season. Several times during the offseason, he's mentioned the fact that the Patriots scored just three offensive touchdowns in the three postseason wins.
In order to rectify that situation, much attention was paid to upgrading that side of the ball. In free agency, tight ends Christian Fauria and Cam Cleeland signed to bolster a position that had become an afterthought in New England in recent seasons. Also, lanky wideout Donald Hayes was brought in from Carolina, serving as a perfect complement to last year's top targets Troy Brown and David Patten.
In the draft, Belichick and personnel director Scott Pioli got even more aggressive and made a deal with Washington to move up 11 spots in the first round. In doing so, the Patriots selected Colorado's Daniel Graham, rated as one of the two best tight ends in the draft alongside Miami's Jeremy Shockey (taken at No. 14 by the Giants), with the 21st pick.
In the second round, the Patriots tabbed Anthony "Deion" Branch, a speedy wideout out of Louisville. Later on in the seventh round, they took Notre Dame receiver David Givens, meaning New England added six receivers through free agency or the draft in the offseason.
Through the first two days of mini-camp, it appears quarterback Tom Brady will be the beneficiary of the infusion of skilled players. In fact, all three quarterback – backup Damon Huard and rookie Rohan Davey – watched the vast majority of their passes get snatched up by a receiver corps that is deeper, faster and simply better than a year ago.
Branch and Graham have been the most impressive of the group. Branch, who appears to be a faster version of Brown, showed tremendous quickness and solid hands throughout the four practices. He drew some attention with a terrific catch on a deep ball from Huard during Friday's morning session in the bubble and allowed a smile to cross his face when asked about it afterward.
"You always want to get that support from the guys," Branch said of the oohs and aahs his catch drew from teammates. "[My teammates] are going to put a lot of pressure on you and make it hard on you but that's their job. [All the rookies] are here trying to make the team and help this team out in any way we can if we do make the team."
Branch comes from a passing offense at Louisville where he had experience in route running and was productive in various roles. Belichick said he's happy with the rookie's progress but as is the case with all the newcomers, still has room to develop.
"I think Deion has picked things up fairly well," Belichick said. "He played both outside and in the slot [at Louisville] so a lot of the things we are asking him to do he has some background with. I think until the pads come on it really hard to make a good evaluation, but in terms of just skills, out there running around catching the ball he looks OK."
At 5-9, 191 pounds, Branch more resembles Brown and Patten in size. That's not the case with the 6-4, 208-pound Hayes, who towers over most of his fellow receivers. He showed great hands in all the drills, particularly sticking on during a red-zone drill Friday afternoon when Belichick returned the troops to the outdoor practice fields.
Hayes made a cut about 3 yards before the backline of the end zone and leapt between two defenders in an effort to grab a Brady bullet. His outstretched hands brought the pass down and he showed great agility by scrapping his toes in the end zone inches away from the sideline for a would-be touchdown. It was the kind of play Hayes should provide on a regular basis.
"I think this will be a good situation for me," said Hayes, who spent his first four seasons in Carolina. These guys obviously know what it takes to win and I'm just watching them and following their lead, trying to feed off everybody. I'm picking things up pretty well and getting the adjustments and stuff like that down."
Graham is a tremendously gifted tight end with silky smooth hands. One thing noticeable when Graham catches a pass is how little effort he seems to exert in doing so. Unlike some players, the ball doesn't make any noise when it comes into contact with his hands, an indication of how soft his hands are.
"We've thrown a lot at him and I think he has started to make the adjustments into a new style of offense," Belichick said. "He has some new techniques to learn, working routes with the quarterback that maybe have more options than some of his college routes where you just pretty much run a pattern. Daniel seems to be working hard and has picked things up at a decent pace."
Fauria appears to be getting the majority of the reps with the first unit, with Graham joining him in two-tight end sets. Cleeland has been on the field but limited as he recovers from Achilles' tendon surgery and may not be ready for the start of camp next month. Belichick indicated that he would be ready to go for the start of the season, however.
The person no doubt happiest with all the new weapons is Brady, but offensive coordinator Charlie Weis can't be too far behind. Too often last season the offense consisted of Antowain Smith runs and passes to Brown. Now, Weis will have options for personnel – multi-receiver sets, formations and routes – with the proper personnel to execute them.
It's still early as mini-camp moves into its final day, but all indication point toward an offense ready to join its defense in effectiveness.