Training camp is six days old, and the focus of the tight end position remains fixed on third-year player Daniel Graham. Veteran tight end Christian Fauria remains on the physically unable to perform list and has yet to practice. Rookie first-round draft pick Benjamin Watson continues to miss time in a contract dispute. That leaves Graham – at least for now – with a window of opportunity.
Head coach Bill Belichick lauded Graham recently during training camp for his outstanding work in the offseason. Whether by nature or circumstance, Graham finds himself in the tight end spotlight. Fauria, who has started 13 games each of the last two seasons, and Watson, the second of two first-round picks this season, were expected to join Graham as the three tight ends considered virtual locks to make the final roster. For now, Graham is getting the valuable reps in practice, and it's up to him how far he can take it.
"I think every player that is out on the field has an opportunity to forge ahead for himself and create a role for himself with the opportunities that he is either being given or is earning depending on what the situation is," Belichick said. "I think in Daniel's case, the big thing for him is just to focus on what he is doing and make the most of his own opportunities notwithstanding what anybody else does or doesn't do. Daniel has had an outstanding offseason. He was one of our offseason award winners. He has had really good production and performance in the camp that we have had. He is off to a good start in training camp even though it is very early. I won't be running up the pole with anything here, but it has all started off on a positive note. We will see where he can take it."
Where he will take it is the question everyone is asking. While he has always proven to be an outstanding blocker at tight end, Graham had a jump in his receiving production last season. After finishing with 15 receptions for 150 yards in six starts his rookie season, those numbers jumped to 38 receptions for 409 yards and four touchdowns in 2003. His receptions were the most by a Patriots tight end since the 67 receptions Ben Coates posted in 1998. He also showed he can make a big play, with his nine catches for 20 yards or more, while displaying an ability to make yards after the catch. The key for Graham will be to perform at a high level on a weekly basis.
"I think the biggest thing would just be consistency," Belichick said. "I think he has shown in two years that he can pretty much do everything that he is going to be asked to do, and he has done it, at some times better than others. That is his main focus, his overall consistency in his performance."
When the Patriots drafted Watson with the 32nd overall pick in this year's draft, it created speculation about Graham's role in the offense. Where exactly does he fit in? At 32-years-old and a veteran of 10 NFL seasons, Fauria is still productive but may be nearing the end of his career. The Patriots do use many formations that require two tight ends, making it a prerequisite to have depth and flexibility at the position. But make no mistake – the team has invested first round picks in two of the last three drafts in the position, which in and of itself raises the same question. Graham remains unaffected.
"It doesn't change my mentality," Graham said. "I came in here, I wanted to be focused and I wanted to show that I'm ready to step up and play the tight end position and be a big key to this offense."
Belichick, who shares the opinion with others on the team, doesn't buy that the addition of Watson has changed Graham's approach.
"I think he has approached it very professionally and he worked hard and was having a great offseason before the draft happened," Belichick said. " Again, that is all up to the people who are out there playing and the competition will take care of itself. What role each player creates for himself based on his performance and his value to the team is kind of what training camp is for. Daniel will have every opportunity to do it, and I think he has so far gotten off to a really good start going all the way back to March."
In many cases, experience breeds consistency. So does understanding a system and developing a comfort level with your position. While Graham admits his consistency is an area he needs to work on, he also points to his comfort level and understanding of the offense as key to the improvement that has taken place.
"Coming in my rookie year and learning this offense was tough," Graham said. "It took me a whole year to understand it, then my second year it took me another year to comprehend it. … But I feel that I have the concept of this offense and I feel real comfortable with my position now."
Those around him are taking notice. Graham has always displayed the physical tools, but developing the overall consistency to play at a high level can be a longer process. Football people in the know will tell you that every player has a different learning curve and they grasp concepts at different rates. Every player at this level is an athlete, turning over much of the game to the mental aspect. It's precisely why players often make great strides during the offseasons of their first few years in the league.
Not only does Fauria understand the growing pains it takes to get through that stage, but he suspects that Graham has something to prove this season.
"Some guys, it just takes them a couple of years," Fauria said. "I was like that. My first two years, man it was tough. I understand what he was going through. Because I remember, I just couldn't figure it out. I was struggling, I was dropping balls; there was no confidence there. That way I couldn't feel like I could just freewheel it and just play like crazy. With him, it's his third year and regardless if they brought Ben [Watson], he has something to prove to himself. He worked hard at it. It has nothing to do with whom they brought in. This is his third year, and now it's time to go. I think he's got it for the most part."
Added Fauria, "If he keeps playing the way he is playing, I think he has the potential to have an outstanding year. It all depends on him staying healthy and keeping his head in the game. Other than that, I don't see any limitations for him."
At this point it's up to Graham. Can he extend the momentum of his solid offseason work into training camp, and parlay that into an even more productive third season? That's a likely scenario. At the very least, the opportunity is there.