Patriots first-round draft pick Daniel Graham grew up with talented football players all around him. His father, Tom, was a standout linebacker at Oregon before moving onto a successful career with the Denver Broncos. His twin brother, Josh, played as a freshman at North Carolina before transferring to junior college, and his older brother, Phillip, was a defensive back at Colorado State in the late '80s.
One of Tom Graham's closest friends from his playing days was former New York Giant George Martin. Martin also played his college ball at Oregon before enjoying a long career with the Giants from 1975-88. When Martin arrived in Eugene to play for the Ducks, the elder Graham was the inspirational leader of the defense and quickly took the young defensive end under his wing.
Nearly 30 years later, Tom's son Daniel hoped to emulate another highly successful former Giant: tight end Mark Bavaro. The Grahams and Martins remained close over the years. In fact, Daniel stills refers to his father's friend as Uncle George. But despite Martin's hopes, the younger Graham was passed over by his former team in favor of Miami tight end Jeremy Shockey, who New York took at No. 15.
The Patriots believed that decision was their good fortune. Recognizing the talents of a player they felt was among the top 10 in the draft, Head Coach Bill Belichick and Personnel Director Scott Pioli went to work trying to move up from the 32nd and final spot in the first round.
After a few phone conversations with the Washington Redskins, they found themselves at No. 21 and were delighted to grab the All-American tight end out of Colorado with the pick.
"We saw some value as we went through the teens and were able to execute the trade with Washington," Belichick said. "We had Daniel rated significantly as one of the better players on the board. We thought that was good value and that gives us good competition at the tight end position."
That may be the understatement of the offseason. In addition to Graham, Belichick brought in veteran free agents Christian Fauria and Cam Cleeland, who'll join returnees Jermaine Wiggins, Jabari Holloway and Arther Love. But don't expect Graham to be intimidated by the excess talent at the position.
"I am going to come in and compete right away," Graham said. "I know there is a lot of depth up there at that position and they have a lot of great players, but I'm going to come in and do what I do best to contribute to the team."
Judging from the scouts and his college coaches, Graham does a lot of things best. In addition to being named a first-team All-American, Graham won the prestigious John Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end. He made 106 receptions in his four seasons in Boulder, including 51 as a senior.
But for all of his exploits as a pass receiver, the first line describing his playing abilities in his bio states that he is "known as a tremendous blocker." While it's still way too early to make an accurate judgement, perhaps Belichick has finally found a full-time answer at the position he's spent more time searching for than any other.
"I think the word I would use to describe him would be, 'Warrior,'" said John Wristen, Graham's tight ends coach at Colorado. "He played through a lot of pain for us with a cracked rib. He's an explosive blocker and has great explosion off the line as a pass receiver. He's not the kind of tight end you need to take out on third-and-one. He's the kind you can run behind in those situations."
One guy who won't be surprised by that is Pioli. The Patriots personnel czar made a trip to Boulder during the season and watched Graham practice.
"We thought he did a real nice job blocking, running and catching," Pioli said of his impressions. "He's a combination tight end. In terms of his blocking ability, there are a lot of tight ends that come out and are strong, but not necessarily explosive. We think he has some explosive ability where he'll have a chance to be a combination guy. I got to see him play quite a bit and we spent organizationally quite a bit of time doing some work on him."
Watching Graham play, one can't help be reminded of Ben Coates in his prime. Graham moves effortlessly down the seam and is equally effective between the hashmarks underneath or downfield. He also runs well in the open field after the catch, something Patriots fans remember Coates doing so well in the mid-'90s.
If Graham delivers what Belichick and Pioli saw when they climbed 11 spots to get him, Patriots fans may finally be able to stop their tight-end longing of the good 'ol days.
Strengths: Explosiveness off the ball is what separates him from most tight ends. Tremendous ability to catch the ball over the middle in traffic.
Weaknesses: Going to have to learn spacing in route running at the pro level. Just average size may lead to problems blocking NFL defensive ends.
Personal: Father, Tom, is Oregon's all-time leader in tackles and played for the Denver Broncos from 1972-74. Twin brother, Josh, played as a freshman at North Carolina before transferring to junior college, and older brother, Phillip, was a defensive back at Colorado State in the late '80s.
Comparable NFL Player: Reggie Kelly, Atlanta — Nice athleticism and pass catching abilities. Possesses multiple skills not many other tight ends have.
What they're saying...
"Graham is a talented tight end who will make the Patriots offense much more effective, providing a dependable threat over the middle. In Graham the Patriots are getting the best tight end they've had since Ben Coates. He's an outstanding receiver, runs well after the catch and is an above average to good blocker. He's highly competitive, comes from a football family and fits the mold of players the Patriots like."
Joel Buchsbaum, author Pro Football Weekly's 2002 draft preview.