Patriots have glaring vacancy at TE

Updated: March 13, 2010, 12:54 AM ET
By Mike Reiss |

The New England Patriots' void at tight end is as large as that of any team in the NFL. They don't have a tight end on the roster who has played in a regular-season NFL game, and they don't officially have a tight ends coach.

There are holes, and then there are gaping holes. This is one of the latter.

Benjamin Watson signed a three-year contract with the Cleveland Browns on Friday morning, and now the question is where the Patriots go from here. Watson's departure isn't a surprise -- the Patriots didn't seem to be overly aggressive in a bid to retain him -- but it highlights one of the more pressing questions on the roster.

That the Patriots are in this position is their own doing, because they had an abysmal 2009 in evaluating tight ends.

Consider that back in training camp, Bill Belichick called the competition among Watson, Chris Baker, Alex Smith and David Thomas the best in his 10 years as head coach. Now consider that none of those players is on the current roster.

How does that happen?

In retrospect, the Patriots swung and missed at every turn.

They paid handsomely for Baker in free agency and later realized he wasn't what they thought they were getting. They traded a fifth-round draft choice for Smith, acquiring his too-rich $1.5 million salary, and he was cut at the end of training camp. Then they traded Thomas -- a still-developing player they could have had under their control for at least three more seasons -- to the Saints for the paltry price of a 2011 seventh-round draft choice.

[+] EnlargeBenjamin Watson
Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMIBenjamin Watson had 29 catches for 404 yards last season for the Patriots.

Given that recent history, one can only wonder whether the Patriots' seemingly passive approach with Watson was the right decision. A three-year, $12 million contract hardly seems like a bank breaker for a player who -- while inconsistent at times and having not reached the lofty expectations placed on him as a first-round pick -- still brings value with his knowledge of the offensive system and his speed.

In the tight end neighborhood, the Patriots now have a vacant lot.

Fortunately for them, there is still time to build on it, whether it's in free agency, in the draft or via a trade. After all, seven days into free agency, every team in the NFL is an incomplete picture at this point.

The free-agent crop is considered weak. The Patriots thought enough of the little-known Daniel Fells to host him on a visit earlier this week, but Fells re-signed with the St. Louis Rams. All that's left on the unrestricted market is a group headlined by Alge Crumpler (Titans), Reggie Kelly (Bengals) and Randy McMichael (Rams), all of whom are on the downsides of their careers. Maybe an unexpected target will come available on the market (the Bears' Desmond Clark?), but for now, it's not an appetizing selection.

On the flip side, the draft is considered deep at tight end. Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham is regarded as the top prize and a likely first-round draft choice, but the true value is said to fall in the second round and beyond with the likes of Arizona's Rob Gronkowski, Florida's Aaron Hernandez, Southern Cal's Anthony McCoy, Miami's Jimmy Graham, Oregon's Ed Dickson and Brigham's Young's Dennis Pitta.

Then there is always the possibility of a trade. With three second-round draft choices, could the Patriots pry away someone like Greg Olsen from the pick-needy Bears?

Whatever the team decides, it figures to draw scrutiny, which is fair based on the recent track record at the position.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for Follow him on Twitter.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter