Rookies Bring New Dimension To Offense

The Patriots made an aggressive move to boost their offensive firepower by drafting two players who can create mismatches against opponent's defenses. New England's two rookie tight ends, Garrett Mills and David Thomas, each bring the ability to make plays in the passing game. Bigger and stronger than receivers, Mills and Thomas pose a challenge to defensive backs who are forced to cover them.

Few Patriots fans were overly surprised when the team used its third-round pick in April's draft on Texas tight end David Thomas. New England's frequent employment of multiple tight end sets combined with the free agent departure of veteran Christian Fauria and pending 2007 free agency of Daniel Graham made adding another potential contributor to the depth chart a near necessity.

What may have surprised Patriots fans a bit was when the team then also added Tulsa tight end Garrett Mills to the mix with its first pick on the second day of the draft.

But the former Texas standout Thomas, for one, didn't give the Mills selection a second thought. In fact, he welcomed it because it was an opportunity to play with someone he already knew.

"I already was familiar with Garrett coming in so I was happy for him, and I was happy that I knew somebody coming into this," Thomas said during the team's recent rookie mini-camp at Gillette Stadium. "Hopefully we can push each other and bring out the best in each other and wind up being good friends once this is over."

In reality, the fact that Patriots coach Bill Belichick took players with seemingly similar skills with back-to-back picks is probably more coincidence than anything else -- a byproduct of the team's value-based draft philosophy. Both were highly productive receivers in college and were known more for that aspect of the game than blocking.

And neither possesses prototypical tight end size, particularly the 6-1, 232-pound Mills. By comparison, Graham and Benjamin Watson, the team's two current tight ends and former first-round selections, are both 6-3 and weigh 257 and 253, respectively.

Thomas is closer at 6-3, 246, but his inline blocking skills aren't what got him drafted on the first day. What made him attractive was his immense production playing for one of the nation's premier programs at Texas, which Belichick admitted gives Thomas a good starting point in his pro career.

"I think there are some similarities (to what Texas does with their tight ends) but there are a lot of differences, too. (We're) certainly at a different level," Belichick said. "Texas is a great team and they play a high level of competition. But the competition level in this league is a little bit higher than that. How that works, we'll just have to wait and see. Dave has a good base from what he did there and the skills, he'll have to refine and improve at this level, but he definitely has something to work with."

On the field for their first taste of life in pro football, the duo was used extensively in passing drills in the rookie mini-camp, which is not surprising since the pair combined for 137 catches for 1,848 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. Thomas showed outstanding hands and grabbed everything thrown in his direction throughout the camp's practices.

There has been speculation about the role Mills could eventually wind up in. He saw time at tight end, fullback, H-back and even filled in at long snapper for Tulsa and some believe that versatility could make him an ideal Patriot. But Belichick wasn't ready to appoint anyone to any roles at such an early juncture.

"We don't pigeonhole anybody," he said when asked about the similarities between Thomas and Mills. "We try to teach them our system and we'll see how their roles and responsibilities fall as we put our team together and get into practices and let them do different things and see how they perform at those different positions.

"Maybe they're versatile and maybe they're not. We'll see, but we want to give them the information so they'll have an opportunity to work at those spots. How well they do and what those things will turn out to be will be what separates them."

That will determine how much playing time each of the rookie tight ends gets, and over the long run, how much value New England really got from its draft weekend double-dip at tight end.

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