Are the Patriots looking to find a cheaper version of Daniel Graham? That's the way things look in their handling of their former first round pick's approach toward free agency. While the Patriots front office may not be actively encouraging Graham to depart Foxborough, the team's lack of action has him considering a move in 2007.
Where things stand now with Graham are in a state of limbo, but not a good state. The team hasn't made the type of offer to show that they're serious enough to keep him in New England. Even if they did, it's not a certainty that he would stay anyway. Graham is a top talent and will undoubtedly command a costly free agent contract, something the Patriots are well known for avoiding. It's the way the team utilizes the 6-foot-3, 257-pound tight end that could be the determining factor.
One reason the rumors surrounding Graham have come to the forefront is Graham's dissatisfaction of not being more involved in the passing game. Adam Caplan, senior NFL writer for Scout.com, reported that Graham would not re-sign with New England before March 2nd - the start of free agency. Caplan reported that a league source believes Graham will receive a significant amount of interest due to the lack of quality talent that is available in free agency. The competition for a tight end of Graham's caliber will undoubtedly drive the price up and out of the range the Patriots are willing to pay their second tight end.
Things weren't always this way between Graham and the Patriots. Before the breakout season Ben Watson had with the Patriots this year, Graham was the number one tight end target for Tom Brady. A look back at the team's roster since his arrival gives a better picture of the situation.
When the Patriots selected Graham in the first round of the 2002 NFL Draft, he was considered a top-tier talent capable of causing the type of mismatches offensive coordinators salivated over. He was big, strong and had enough speed to get open. Although he had room to improve, he was just what New England needed a big tight end target for Tom Brady. New England was so enamored with the Colorado product that they moved up from the 32nd spot, trading their first (32) third (96) and seventh (234th) round picks to the Washington Redskins to take Graham with the 24th pick overall.
The subject of trade speculation in 2006, the Patriots had to quash rumors about a Graham to Denver trade for wide receiver Ashlie Lelie. Uncharacteristically, head coach Bill Belichick opened up about their intentions to keep Graham in New England in an attempt to quell the unrest in the media.
"We have not had a single discussion about trading Daniel Graham," Belichick said at the time. "We will not trade Daniel Graham this year. End of story."
Trade no, but let get away? Quite possibly.
The Patriots actually made moves in 2006 to prepare for the eventual departure of their former number one. In the 2006 NFL Draft, the Patriots selected Texas tight end David Thomas in the third round. Then in the fourth round they selected Tulsa tight end Garrett Mills.
With fellow first round pick (2003) Ben Watson as the Patriots primary pass receiving threat at tight end, Graham fell into the role of primary blocker - a role that won him respect throughout the locker room as the hardest hitter on the team.
Mills and Thomas are considered viable pass threats. While neither of them possesses the blocking skills of Graham, the Patriots may opt to use an additional tackle or a blocking tight end at the position. Mills has been designated as a fullback, which leaves one slot open for another tight end on the roster.
When Watson went down with a leg injury late in the 2006 season, the Patriots tried to sign a number of blocking tight ends. The obvious thought process was not that they were signing someone to replace Watson, rather they tried to replace Graham so he could move back to the passing threat the Patriots used him as early on in his career. When those moves didn't work out, the Patriots opted to wait on the return of Watson while using Graham in more of a receiving option role
|Marlin Jackson #28 of the Indianapolis Colts tackles Daniel Graham #82 of the New England Patriots during their game at Gillette Stadium on November 7, 2005 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)|
So where will Graham end up in 2007?
If New England decides to go another direction, Graham could wind up in Minnesota, Denver or Seattle. Patriots Insider has been reporting for months that the Broncos were interested in Graham, and the feeling was thought to be mutual. Graham still had a number of connections to the Colorado area, and playing in Denver - where his father played before him - might just be what Graham really wants.
Losing Graham would be a big hit for New England's quest to return to the playoffs. Not only is Graham the single best blocker on the roster, he's a high character guy who doesn't cause distractions off the field. In 2006, Graham was willing to jeopardize his playing career to help his brother who desperately needed a kidney transplant.
"I've got a bigger role in life," Graham said at the time. "This is my brother we're talking about. It's a matter of life and death. I can give up what I do for a living. I can find something else to do. If it came down to it, I was ready to do it."
Graham's mother interceded on his behalf, volunteering her own kidney. Medically, she was a better match, but that didn't prevent Graham from showing why he is so highly valued. A player willing to give up a highly lucrative job in the prime of his career is just the type of person teams are willing to bend over backwards for. It's another feather in Graham's cap as he heads toward free agency.
Although the Patriots will probably decide to let Graham sign elsewhere if he gets a big offer, having him back in the fold could prove highly valuable. A great blocker, a decent receiver and a great person are not bad assets for a first round pick to possess. It's hard to believe the Patriots will be able to find someone to fill his shoes, but it looks like that's exactly what they're going to try to do.