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In a tight spot

Posted by Tom Wilcox February 12, 2009 05:56 AM

After Bill Belichick selected at least one tight end for six consecutive years, the perception was that the New England coach just liked to build the tight end position through the draft. A look at the play-calling from this past season shows just how much Belichick enjoys employing the men at the end of the line.

The Patriots ran 1,102 offensive plays in 2008, and a tight end was on the field for 1,029 of them. New England also ran multiple-tight-end formations on more than 30 percent of its snaps.
With the April 25-26 draft now in focus, the question is whether Belichick will be tempted to grab a tight end — which he has not done in the last two drafts — or if he is content with Benjamin Watson and David Thomas, who are both entering the final year of their contracts.

Despite their consistent usage of tight ends this past season, the Patriots have become more of a receiver-based team in the past two years, with packages using three and four wide receivers to take advantage of the skills of Randy Moss and Wes Welker. And whether it’s Tom Brady or Matt Cassel running the offense next season, they figure to remain geared toward wideouts.

Watson has hinted at great potential throughout his five-year career, but after catching a career-high 49 balls in 2006, he snagged just 36 in 2007 and a disappointing 22 this season. He also seemed to have a problem with drops in 2008, and several were particularly memorable and ill-timed.

But Watson remains a good blocker, and among the skill position players, only Moss and Welker were in on more plays last year. Watson participated in the third-most plays, getting in on 76 percent of all snaps.

Thomas, who was drafted out of Texas in the third round in 2006, is primarily a blocker. He made only nine catches on the year and has just 21 in his three-year career in New England.
Undrafted rookie tight end Tyson DeVree was promoted to the roster late in the season and may figure into the team’s future as well.

With the Patriots picking at No. 23 this year, the feeling is that they will take a defensive player, possibly a back. But Belichick has selected a tight end in the first round twice with New England. In 2004, he drafted Daniel Graham with the 21st pick, and he took Watson with the final pick of the first round in 2005.

And with the uncertainty regarding Watson and Thomas after 2009, Belichick may want some fresh blood at tight end. Only one tight end — Brandon Pettigrew of Oklahoma State — is projected as a first-round pick in most draft ratings, but Belichick has shown in the past that he’s not afraid to take a player who’s not on anyone else’s draft board.

Company man
As expected, the Patriots put the franchise tag on Cassel. They didn’t waste any time, doing so on the first possible day. Cassel reportedly will take the offer and receive a one-year deal. He will receive a raise from $520,000 to $14.65 million, making him the team’s highest-paid player.

Brady has a $14.62 million cap number, meaning New England will have $29.27 million of the $123 million salary cap tied up in just one position.

The possibility exists that the Patriots are counting on Cassel as an insurance policy if Brady isn’t ready for the 2009 season, but many feel they won’t carry a backup quarterback who makes $14 million per year.

Either way, Belichick isn’t about to comment on the possibility of a trade. In a statement issued by the team after it put the franchise tag on Cassel Feb. 5, Belichick said: “Matt has been a pleasure to coach his entire career and last season in particular, when his years of hard work and commitment resulted in a most impressive performance. We look forward to working with Matt again in 2009.”

The fact that they secured Cassel early in the signing period may indicate the Patriots are trying to work out a deal as soon as possible. Any trade for Cassel would require that the Pats and the interested team work out trade compensation and that Cassel agree to a long-term contract with the new team. Free agency officially begins on Feb. 27, the first day a deal could be finalized.

Belichick franchising a player and then trading him wouldn’t be unprecedented. The Patriots put the tag on defensive back Tebucky Jones in 2003 and later dealt him to the Saints. Cassel is just the fourth player the team has franchised. Jones, kicker Adam Vinatieri (2002 and 2005), and defensive back Asante Samuel (2007) are the others.

Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots for OT and can be reached at twilcox@globe.com

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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
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