With the Patriots due for another shakeup at the Tight End position in the wake of the depressing news on Aaron Hernandez I thought I’d take a look at the history of the TE position in terms of the Brady era Patriots. It’s a position we’ve very much come to take for granted in the Gronk-Hernandez years, and it looks like things might have to go back to the drawing board once more. Here’s a look at how we got to where we are today.
Rod Rutledge 1998 – 2002
Notable Accomplishments Caught Brady’s 1st NFL completion
This first one precedes the Brady era just a bit. In 1998 the Patriots, then coached by Pete Carrol, spent a 2nd round pick on a TE from Alabama named Rod Rutledge who never really did anything. Statistically speaking he did practically nothing spending 5 years in New England and only cracking 100 yards once.
His true place in history would come in November 23, 2000. A gangly young 6th round pick named Tom Brady would enter the game against the Detroit Lions. Brady threw 3 passes. The last of them was complete to Rod Rutledge for 6 yards. It was a 3rd and 10. The Patriots would punt the ball and soon close out a 34-9 blowout loss. It was the last the world would see of young Tom Brady for the year.
Jermaine Wiggins 2000 – 2001
Notable Accomplishments 10 Catches for 68 yards in the Snow Bowl v Raiders. Super Bowl Champion 2001.
The first tight end of the Brady era and the pride of East Boston, Jermaine Wiggins was somehow the top tight end in New England for 2 years. Originally an undrafted free agent by the Jets Wiggins was a guy used to bouncing around. Wiggins played for the University of Maine, Marshall, and then finally ended up at Georgia. He’d go on to play for 6 different NFL teams and a UFL’s Florida Tuskers in 2009. He was a likable guy who played hard and fit right in with the no-name Patriots team that would shock the world at win a Super Bowl.
Wiggy was famous, at least amongst Eastie (that’s “East Boston” in lowlife talk) folks, for flashing an East Boston tattoo when he scored a touchdown. He got to do that exactly 5 times as a Patriot. His stats were never anything impressive as he was part of a lopsided offense in Brady’s seminal years where virtually everything went to Troy Brown. Wiggins had 14 receptions for all of 2001 where Brown finished the year with 101 catches for 1199 yards, almost double what the next most popular target (David Patten) caught… a stat that spotlights just how pathetic it was for the Rams to not be able to cover Brown in the final drive of the Super Bowl. You can catch Wiggy these days on 98.5 once in a while, or doing some play breakdowns for people too drunk or asleep to turn their TV’s off on WHDH.
Christian Fauria & Daniel Graham 2002 – 2005 (Fauria) / 2006 (Graham)
Notable Accomplishments 7 TDs in 2002 (Fauria) / 7 TDs in 2004 (Graham)
In retrospect the names weren’t much but this was the beginning of an experimentation with multiple tight end sets in New England in the Brady era. The duo of Fauria and Graham never broke any records but adapted to Patriots football well enough to win 2 Super Bowls. Fauria was a former high 2nd round pick of the Seattle Seahawks, and had flourished in college with Kordell Stewart at Colorado. He never really blew anyone away in Seattle and found his way to the Patriots in free agency as they looked for a pass catching TE. Despite his less than devastating stats Fauria was a competent dependable target for Brady who seemed like he could have been a Patriot all along.
At the same time the Patriots spent the 24th overall pick on another Colorado guy TE Daniel Graham. Three picks later went Belichick’s all time man crush Ed Reed making the Graham pick amount to absolutely no sense in retrospect. Still the point was to have a multiple TE attack, an idea Belichick had helped introduce to the NFL with the Lions in the70’s. Graham was good not great and much better in Madden 2005 than in real life. He was a system guy who blocked well and was in the right place at the right time consistently. In 5 years in New England he managed 1395 yards and 17 TDs and was even an offensive captain. The later signing of Ben Watson, the promotion of Josh McDaniels to OC, the slow shift in the NFL towards a more athletic tight ends, and the fact that Graham’s pass catching abilities were diminishing all lead to the Pats letting him go in 2007. Denver picked him up and gave him $30 million over 5 years, a contract later reluctantly inherited by coach Josh McDaniels in 2009 who released him a year later.
Ben Watson 2004 – 2009
Notable Accomplishments 643 yards 3 TDs in 2006, and that tackle on Champ Bailey that no one will ever shut up about
A friend once told me a story about a waitress at his restaurant getting hit on by Robert Alexander. He mis-remembered the story years later and told it as Ben Watson doing the smooth talking. I corrected him, having heard it a number of times, and told him “If it was Ben Watson putting moves on a girl he’d drop his own dick.”
The memory of Ben Watson varies from Pats fan to Pats fan. Some people remember a crazy fast 255 lb prospect that was supposed to change the TE position forever. The rest of us remember that most of that other stuff never really happened. Watson was good but never consistent and he was never what he was billed to be. The Ben Watson I remember was a $10 scratch ticket that had a 50/50 chance of either making a huge play or dropping a wide open pass. Thinking back on the Ben Watson era was a lot like thinking back on my old 486 Packard Bell PC. It seemed impressive at the time and the same idea was there that my 25″ iMac realized years later, but in retrospective was just a crude unpolished version of things to come. For a supposedly freak athlete Watson was clumsy, uncoordinated, and suspect with his hands. He’d just do dumb things like catch a ball 3 yards out of bounds in the end zone, not squeeze his hands on a pass in the middle of the field and give up a tipped interception, catch a ball on the sidelines with one leg way the hell out of bounds. And this was a guy who reportedly had the 3rd highest Wonderlic score of all time. He was hurt all the time (playing 16 games just once in 6 years). On top of that it was also a total mystery if he’d even be involved in the game plan from week to week. I can recall a frustrated Matthew Berry approaching him to ask why he was such a cockblock fantasy pick. Watson told him point blank that some weeks they didn’t even gameplan with him in mind.
Utlimately, Watson’s career came to a crossroads in 2010 with a big debate on whether or not to re-sign him. In a contract year he had only put up 404 yards. With an ultra deep draft looming a decision had to be made. Belichick being a smart guy passed, much to the dismay of stupid emotional fans everywhere that were the kind of people that still keep their fingers crossed every time a new terrible Metallica record comes out. Blockheaded fans brought up his famous touchdown saving tackle on a Champ Bailey INT return in the 05 Divisional playoff game. Lost in the nostalgia was the fact that the Pats lost the game anyways with an invisible Ben Watson recording zero catches for zero yards that day. For smart fans it was an easy decision: Watson just wasn’t worth the money.
He was replaced by a trio of veteran Algee Crumpler, and rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. People still bitched and moaned when Watson went on to record a career high 763 yards with the Browns. He never came close to that number again and is now the #2 behind Jimmy Graham in New Orleans. The Watson complaints remain one of the dumbest consensus decisions by Patriots Nation of all time.
David Thomas 2006 – 2008
Notable Accomplishments Won A Super Bowl with the Saints
Thomas was the 2nd John Mackey Award winner to be drafted by the Patriots (the first was Daniel Graham) when he went 86th overall in 2006. Just for the hell of it I’ll point out that Owen Daniels went 22 picks later. He was your typical Patriots 3rd round pick in that he played a role but never really broke out. He was #2 to Watson and had some nice games filling in whenever Watson was hurt including an 83 yard performance late in his rookie year that included his first ever NFL touchdown.
He was a good blocker and had a knack for being forgotten for 3 quarters and then coming out of nowhere to snag a catch for a key first down. The party ended for Thomas in week 8 of 2008. With the Matt Cassell lead Patriots trying to overcome a 15-18 deficit late in the game Thomas decked a Colts defender with a pointless late hit that would nullify a first down run. The drive would end with an INT. The look on Belichick’s told the whole story. Thomas would never play another snap as a Patriot. It was a bumout, but I was glad to see him gone after a stupid mindless play like that too. He hung on with the Saints long enough to win a Super Bowl but was released after the 2012 season.
Kyle Brady 2007 – 2007
Notable Accomplishments Was really big.
Kyle Brady was maybe most famous for being one of the most prolific Jets busts of all time. That and had a neck with the diameter of a Ford Explorer. The Jets took him 9th overall with all of Madison Square Garden begging and screaming for Warren Sapp. In 4 years with the Jets he put together about 900 yards, and was equally mediocre for 8 years in Jacksonville. The Patriots picked him up for the veteran minimum as a blocking TE in 2007. He would have been the #3 TE if Thomas hadn’t missed the entire season with an injury. Either way the #2 TE wasn’t much of a consideration in an offense featuring Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth and Wes Welker murdering defenses. The lesser Brady had 2 touchdowns in 2 blowout wins against the Cowboys and the Dolphins but was an effective run blocker throughout the season. His final game of his 13 year career would be the infamous Super Bowl XLII where Brady would record 1 reception for 3 yards.
Notable Accomplishments None. Chris Baker sucked.
Searching for “Chris Baker Pro Football Reference” didn’t even autofill on my search bar. I think it might have been the first time anyone’s ever asked for it. His stats weren’t any better or worse than David Thomas or Kyle Brady or anyone else who played #2 to Ben Watson. But if you actually watched the games you knew what a piss poor showing it really was.
He really wasn’t a bad tight end with the Jets, and was one of those guys who looked like he was on the verge of breaking out a lot. He was a 3rd round pick in 2002 but took 3 years to earn a starting role. He threw a public temper tantrum when the Jets spent a first round pick on Dustin Keller which the Jets turned around and rewarded with a contract extension (seems like the thing to do in New Jersey). They dumped him short of his contract in 2009.
The Pats gave him a chance to show up his old team in week 2 of 2009 and he answered with 1 reception for 1 yard. It was an allegorical performance of his entire season in one of the shittiest Patriot offenses of the Brady era. Watching him play you just saw a guy who brought a loser Jets mentality to the game and had no problem letting passes bounce of his sternum. Patriots fans were glad to see him go when they let loose every single TE on the roster after the 2009 season. He finished out his career with a single year in Seattle making 9 catches for 114 yards.
Notable Accomplishments Mentor to Gronk & Hernandez
Algeron Darius Crumpler was signed by the Patriots in 2010 after 9 years in the NFL. Years ago he had been a pretty impressive force in Atlanta but his stats had rapidly diminished in his 30’s. No one thought he had much left in the tank. On paper he would record 6 receptions in 16 games for only 52 yards. In real time they were some of the most spirited 52 yards I can remember.
Really the point of bringing in Crumpler was to show two rookies Gronk and Hernandez how to play the game like a pro. The results speak for themselves. He was regarded as a solid teammate and Belichick never had enough praise for what he was able to do with the Patriots locker room. If Gronkowski had Ben Watson around to learn from who knows how things might have turned out.
With the future uncertain for our Gronkowski and Hernandez it’s good to end this on a positive note.