If there is one position that has drastically improved in New England, at least on paper, it is tight end, where New England added two legitimate starting talents and drafted a third player who figures to be the future at the spot.
The additions were so strong at tight end that neither of the players who filled the position during the run to the Super Bowl - Rod Rutledge and Jermaine Wiggins - are with the team anymore. In Christian Fauria, Cam Cleeland and rookie Daniel Graham the Patriots have a ton of potential for the tight end spot that simply has not existed since Ben Coates was in his prime.
Fauria will open camp with the first offense and figures to have the initial inside track for the starting job while Graham develops. Still, the competition between the two will be watched closely, as the rookie certainly has the talent and athleticism to start from the jump.
What Fauria brings to the table is consistency. Heading into his eighth season, he has 166 career catches for 1,683 yards, an average of more than 10 yards per catch. Fauria had pedestrian totals of 21 catches for 188 yards in 2001, but both totals were well ahead of the leading production the team had at the position a year ago. Also, Fauria has averaged 30 catches per year over the last four seasons, solid consistency where the offense most needs it.
Fauria is also a complete tight end, capable of either going out for a pass or staying in to block. The main problem with the position a year ago was that the Patriots had Rutledge as an extra tackle and Wiggins for passing situations, making it easier for the defense to determine the function of the tight ends on particular plays.
Graham too is considered a well-rounded tight end, though he is clearly more explosive than Fauria as a receiver. The John Mackey Award winner as the nation's top tight end last fall, Graham was second in the nation among tight ends with 51 catches for 753 yards and six touchdowns, averaging a strong 14.8 yards per catch. During both mini-camp and rookie camp he showed soft hands and caught basically every ball thrown his way.
The combined career totals of Rutledge and Wiggins are 59 catches for 544 yards and seven touchdowns. That is only eight more catches and one more touchdown than Graham had as a senior. It's also 209 yards less than the Patriots top pick gained in the passing game at Colorado last fall.
The interesting thing is that Graham is not the only tight end to essentially match the career totals of Rutledge and Wiggins in a single season. As a rookie in 1998, Cleeland posted 54 catches for 684 yards and six touchdowns in New Orleans. Having more of a reputation as a receiver than a blocker, Cleeland could actually be the most viable weapon at the position if he can fully recover from Achilles problems and stay healthy.
It is Cleeland's situation that will most affect the position competition in training camp. By virtue of the contract Fauria signed and one Graham is sure to get as the 21st overall pick of the first round, both are locks for the roster. If Cleeland comes back from the injury, he Fauria and Graham make a trio of tight ends that would be difficult for any team in the league to match, while at the same time making it hard on the other tight ends in the mix to get a sniff.
Second-year players Jabari Holloway and Arther Love were not helped by injuries that cost both most of their rookie seasons. Holloway landed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury, and a groin problem opened Love's career on the Physically Able to Perform list and was the major reason he never saw the field.
This season both face an uphill climb for roster spots. There has been talk of Holloway playing an H-Back role, working at both tight end and fullback. If he can show versatility it would certainly help his cause. Love is still a bit raw, but may have enough potential to stick around. At the very least he could land on the practice squad depending on how he performs in camp. Neither can afford to miss time for a second consecutive training camp.
Free agent Scott Dragos also worked with the tight ends during mini-camp, but is listed on the roster as a fullback. Like Holloway, he may fill more of an H-Back role and could figure in on offense and special teams.
However the competition pans out, the tight end figures to be a very visible part of the offense this season. Head Coach Bill Belichick stressed red zone improvement in the offseason, and the additions at tight ends and Donald Hayes at wide receiver should go a long way in helping in that area.