Tight end has always been a position high on the Patriots priority list since Bill Belichick took over in 2000. In his previous seven drafts with the Patriots, Belichick has selected nine tight ends, including David Thomas and Garrett Mills with consecutive picks last year. While tight end may not be New England's biggest offseason need, the team could draft yet another player at that position this year, especially with Daniel Graham expected to test the free agent waters in a couple of weeks.
Benjamin Watson and Thomas are both good receivers and will each take on a bigger role next year should Graham not return. Throw in a healthy Mills and the Patriots have three dangerous pass-catching tight ends to keep defensive coordinators awake at night. The problem is none of those players are great blockers, something Graham has excelled at since joining the Patriots in 2002.
There are a few tight ends in this year's draft that can contribute as receivers, while also helping the Patriots in the running game and pass protection because of their ability to block. New England probably won't take a tight end with one of its two first round selections. However, players like Martrez Milner (Georgia), Joe Newton (Oregon State), Scott Chandler (Iowa) and Clark Harris (Rutgers) are projected to go later in the draft and each has already spoken with the Patriots this offseason.
Teammates with Watson at Georgia, Milner (6-3, 252) became the Bulldogs starting tight end in 2006. While he caught 30 passes for 425 yards and three touchdowns as a senior, Milner shares more than just an alma mater with Watson. Like the Patriots talented tight end, Milner has had trouble hanging onto the football.
Milner keeps in touch with Watson and talked with his mentor after he had three critical drops in a 21-14 loss to Florida last year.
"Ben is always calling me and sending me text messages," Milner said. "He called me and told me to keep my head up after the Florida game. He called me again after my last game at Georgia and told me about the Senior Bowl process. He told me that most teams are saying about me what they were saying about him when he came out. A great blocker with questionable hands. He told me to keep working hard and don't give up on yourself because anything is possible. Ben said how you handle adversity shows your true character."
According to his college coaches, Milner is best suited to be a blocker, a label he's not necessarily thrilled to have put on him.
"At Georgia the coaches used to always say I was a better blocker than a receiver," he said. "That's one thing I didn't want to hear. I want the ball in my hands. I'm known as a good blocker but hopefully I'll get the opportunity to prove that I can catch the ball too."
While he was inconsistent at times in college, Milner also showed potential in his one season as a starter and is a player with a lot of upside. The Patriots are known for taking players like that in the middle rounds of the draft, so there's a chance Watson and Milner could be reunited in New England.
Newton (6-7, 257) came back from a ruptured tendon in his left foot that he suffered just before the start of the 2005 season to have a solid senior year. A semi-finalist for the John Mackey Award – given out to the top tight end in college football - Newton caught 28 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns. At 6-7, Newton has the ability to go up and outfight defensive backs for the football. That makes him a big asset to an offense once it gets inside the red zone.
While Oregon State is known as a passing team, the best part of Newton's game is as a run blocker. He had eight-touchdown springing blocks for the Beavers last season. Overall, Newton had 65 knockdown blocks in 2006.
"I'm just trying to show my character to teams and let them know I'll do whatever it takes to win," Newton said. "I think blocking is an underrated part of my game. We had a good rushing attack and that's something we tried to establish in every game. The tight end blocking well on the edge is necessary for the running game to work, so that's a skill I think is underrated for me."
The mammoth Chandler (6-7, 270) was actually a one-time high school receiver that weighed 215 pounds. He played receiver during his freshman year at Iowa before making the switch to tight end. Chandler was Drew Tate's favorite target over the last two years and finished his college career with 115 receptions for 1,431 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Some have questioned Chandler's ability to be an effective inline blocker because of his tall frame. He admits it's an area he's always improving in but says one of his best blocking efforts came last month at the Senior Bowl.
"I think as long as I can sink my hips and get my hips low, I'm okay," Chandler said. "That's one of the things I focused on early when I moved to tight end and something I think I'm still getting better at. I feel like I came into my own blocking as a senior. I'm still progressing there but I think my blocking at the Senior Bowl was my best performance so far."
Former personnel director of the Dallas Cowboys, Gil Brandt, believes Chandler has the potential to be a very good player in the NFL.
"His best days are ahead of him," Brandt said. "He's already started to grow into his body and that will help him become a better blocker. I think he's a player that has a lot of upside to him."
Harris (6-5, 261) was the starting tight end for one of college football's most potent rushing attacks. He was instrumental in Rutgers offense as both a blocker and receiver. Harris caught at least one pass in 38 consecutive games, while also paving the way for running backs Ray Rice and Brian Leonard to rack up yards on the ground.
"I think I'm much improved as a blocker," Harris said. "After the season I was able to go back and watch some tape and I think I've improved over the years. You can never be too good as a blocker so that's the main thing I always focus on. I'm a physical guy. I like to be on the line, in the trenches hitting people."
Harris enjoys blocking so much that he would rather lay out an opposing player than score a touchdown.
"Everybody always asks me about catching my first touchdown pass in college," he said. "I barely remember that because earlier in that drive Brian Leonard caught a pass in the flat and I cracked back on someone and knocked his helmet off. I got more excited about that than my touchdown catch. If it comes down to it I like blocking better."
Unlike last year's draft when Vernon Davis was selected by the San Francisco 49ers with the sixth overall pick, this class doesn't have any sure-fire prospects at the tight end position. There's even a chance that no tight ends will be taken in the first round this year. However, there's good value at the position in the middle rounds of the draft.
"There's no Vernon Davis coming out this year but I know there's some guys in that third/fourth round range that are going to play in this league," Vikings vice president of personnel Rick Spielman said about this year's tight end crop. "It's just a matter of going through and finding which player is best for your system. There are some first day guys and early second day guys who can play in this league."
Virtually every tight end that took the podium at the combine on Thursday said they've already spoken with a representative from the Patriots. That doesn't mean the team will select a tight end in this year's draft. Although it does mean they're looking at the position carefully and if history is any indicator, there's a good chance the Patriots come out of this draft with at least one new tight end. After all, selecting a tight end on draft day has become a tradition in New England.