|Daniel Graham won two rings with the Patriots and made a lot of friends, but when he had the chance to become a free agent, he jumped at it. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)|
Enjoying bucks of Broncos
Ex-Patriot TE Graham likes it a lot in Denver
There are things Daniel Graham wouldn't trade from his five years in New England, such as his two Super Bowl rings and the friendships with some teammates. He said he still talks regularly with current Patriots Tom Brady, Kevin Faulk, and Benjamin Watson.
But since Graham departed as a free agent after the 2006 season - landing a five-year, $30 million contract with $15 million in bonuses and guarantees from the Denver Broncos - it's not as if he's regretted the decision.
Part of it is that he's now playing in his home state, close to family and friends. The other part is that he wasn't thrilled with how his Patriots tenure ended from a business perspective.
With the Broncos visiting the Patriots tomorrow night, it's a chance for Graham to reconnect with old friends, and reflect on the first five years of his career.
Naturally, he'll have some added incentive to show his former teammates and coaches that he still can play at a high level. He's been used mostly as a blocker - one Patriot called him Denver's best blocker - and he enters with eight catches for 93 yards and one touchdown on the season.
Graham says he's excited to play at Gillette Stadium for the first time as a visitor. This also marks his first trip to town, business or pleasure, since signing with Denver.
Graham fielded questions last season as the Patriots rolled to a historic 16-0 season, with some wondering how it felt to leave a team that was having such success. At the time, Graham said he'd make the same decision again.
Last week, he repeated that he feels the same way, mainly because of contract-based issues.
"I did five years in New England, and it was exciting seeing my teammates have the season they had, but I really didn't miss it up there," Graham said. "Everybody might just see the glory because they win all the time, but it's not always like that."
While some players more easily accepted some of the Patriots' difficult personnel decisions within their team-building philosophy, Graham seemed to take them hard. A team captain in his final New England season in 2006, he had been particularly upset with the departure of his close friend Deion Branch that year.
As for his own contract situation, Graham felt like he and the Patriots weren't on the same page.
"I didn't feel like it was good terms when I left New England." he said. "At the same time, it's a business. They have to run their business and I have to do what I have to do that's best for me. I was able to hit the free agent market and I chose to leave."
When he signed with the Broncos, the 6-foot-3-inch, 257-pound Graham hoped to become more of a pass-catching threat. Already considered a devastating blocker, his career high for receptions was 38 (in 2003) and thus he was seldom mentioned among the game's top tight ends despite his status as a first-round draft choice in 2002.
But the 29-year-old Graham said his role in Denver is essentially the same as it was in New England, which he accepts.
"Overall, it's been a good experience," he said. "Coming home and playing in front of friends and family, it's been good for me. It was a disappointing season last year [7-9] but we're trying to get things on track this year."
The Broncos (4-2) would take a big step in that direction with a win over the Patriots tomorrow. Graham said impressive Broncos rookie receiver Eddie Royal reminds him of Branch, and that quarterback Jay Cutler is emerging at the controls of the team's offense.
"He's a competitor, a great teammate," he said. "He's learned his first couple years and he's getting much better understanding this offense and becoming a leader on this team."
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan and Cutler offered similar praise for Graham.
"Great guy, great teammate, a leader on the field and off the field," Cutler said. "We're fortunate to have him."