Going into the offseason after the Super Bowl there were a number of positions that Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick and Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli targeted as areas for an upgrade. One of the most obvious was the tight end position. In 2001 starting tight ends Jermaine Wiggins and Rod Rutledge combined to make 19 catches for 168 yards and four touchdowns.
So between February and the start of training camp the Patriots successfully obtained three new quality tight ends. They signed veteran free agents Cam Cleeland and Christian Fauria. Then they traded up in April's draft to take one of the premier tight ends available, Colorado's Daniel Graham. And through three games of the new season how has the position changed?
"To this point it's better," Belichick said on Thursday. "We hope that in time it will increase and improve, but just because we've won a few doesn't mean that it will."
Statistically the three players have combined to make quite an initial splash. In just three games the trio has caught 15 passes for 87 yards and each player has a touchdown reception. But according to both the coach and players the transition from a team that was weak at the tight end position to one that now has a viable threat there, was not necessarily an instant one.
"I think the quarterback has to develop confidence in the tight end position," Cleeland said. "You want to say, 'We are over here. We are open. If Troy is covered we will be there for you.' It starts in practice and in training camp. We tried to catch the ball and give him confidence and that is really what it takes."
According to Belichick, the acclimation process began in mini camp when the quarterbacks were made aware that even in practice they didn't go to the tight end as often as they went to their other receivers.
"I think it was a gradual thing, but there is no question that it started out that way at the beginning of camp and even back in mini camp," Belichick said. "We showed the quarterbacks the charts [of practice throws] and made them aware of how few balls the tight ends were getting. Not with the idea of forcing it in there, but just to look at the field and take what is there."
Belichick went on to stress that because of their presence in the middle of the field and responsibilities on every play that the tight end is a key position in most offenses.
"They are important in every single play, whether it is a pass play, a run play or in pass protection," Belichick said. "They are involved in all those facets of the game. If you have a well-balanced attack and have a tight end who has some versatility then you are able to threaten in a lot of different ways."
So far in the season the Patriots have shown that they have three tight ends that can compete at the NFL level. Should they continue to improve, especially the talented rookie Graham, it adds an extremely valuable offensive weapon for quarterback Tom Brady and the offense. And as an offense, you can never have too many weapons.
The Patriots added offensive tackle Matt Knutson to the practice squad on Thursday. The 6-7, 315-pound Knutson went to college at the University of North Dakota and originally signed with the Jets as a rookie free agent but was waived on Aug. 26, 2002. … Similarly to the Patriots, the Chargers also list eight players on the injury report for Sunday's game. Center Cory Raymer is out and was placed on injured reserve with an Achilles injury. Free safety Rogers Beckett (ankle), wide receiver Reche Caldwell (hamstring), strong safety Rodney Harrison (groin), tackle Vaughn Parker (groin) and tackle Sammy Williams (hamstring) are all listed as Questionable. Cornerback Davis Sanchez (low back) and linebacker Junior Seau (ankle) are listed as Probable. … The Patriots will travel to San Diego on Friday rather than on the usual Saturday due to the length of the trip and the 4:15 p.m. EST kickoff. … Joe Andruzzi (knee), Troy Brown (knee) and Damien Woody (leg) did not practice on Thursday. For video of the practice and an update on the players click on Patriots Video News here on Patriots.com.