With the final choice in the first round of the draft two weeks ago, the New England Patriots sent ripples through the gallery at Madison Square
Garden, using the selection on University of Georgia tight end Ben Watson.
It was a surprise of daily-double proportions, since Watson was ranked as a second-round prospect on the draft boards of most teams, but also because
the Pats had made a bold move up in the first round to snatch tight end Daniel Graham only two years ago. Fact is, in the five drafts orchestrated by
coach Bill Belichick and personnel chief Scott Pioli, the Patriots have now chosen six tight ends, at least one per year.
Kellen Winslow will be an immediate starter with the Browns.
One might suggest that New England, to borrow an old adage, is going to keep selecting tight ends until it gets it right. Or it just might be that the
Patriots, trend setters in many areas after claiming two Super Bowl titles in the past three seasons, are just getting in line with the rest of the
NFL where tight ends are concerned.
Indeed, the tight end position, seemingly headed for extinction just five or six years ago as league offenses continued to evolve more toward "spread"
and "open" formations, is back en vogue once again.
There were few more coveted players in this year's draft than Kellen Winslow Jr., whose speed, overall athleticism and ability to separate from
defenders in the secondary could redefine the position in much the same manner his father re-wrote the tight end manual two decades ago.
"Just with all the different things (a tight end) is asked to do," said the younger Winslow, "you kind of have to be a special player. It's the nature
of the position. So why wouldn't teams be chasing tight ends, man?"
Why not, indeed.
The inclusion of Watson and Winslow in the first round this year means there have now been six tight ends selected in the opening stanza of the last
three drafts. No, that doesn't sound like much progress, until one considers that prior to 2002, there had been just eight tight ends in the first
round of the previous eight drafts. That dates back to 1994, the year the NFL adopted the seven-round lottery. In three of those eight drafts, there
were no first-round tight ends.
During that eight-year stretch, teams chose an average of 13.8 tight ends in the drafts, making it one of the lowest represented positions. Over the
past three drafts, the league welcomed an average of 17.3 tight ends, an increase of 25 percent. Four times in that span, teams took multiple tight
ends in a draft. Before this year's draft, some skeptics in the scouting community suggested there might be just six tight ends chosen in two days,
but the final count was 14.
So while free agency and economics hint that tight end remains a low priority position -- the "franchise" qualifying offer of $2.61 million at tight
end, for instance, is the second-lowest (behind only kickers and punters) among the 11 position categories recognized in the collective bargaining
agreement -- recent trends skew more positively.
Certainly the recent entry of players such as Winslow and former University of Miami teammate Jeremy Shockey into the league has enhanced the profile
of tight ends. But the upswing at the position is as much evidenced by quantity as it is quality.
At the conclusion of the 2003 season, there was an average of 3.8 tight ends combined on league active rosters and on injured reserve. That represents
an increase of 15 percent, or roughly one-half more tight end per team, than five years earlier.
Teams took an average of 4.8 tight ends to training camp last year and it appears that the position's ranks will swell even more this summer. As of
Thursday evening, there were 166 tight ends, or 5.2 per franchise, currently under contract to the 32 teams. And that does not count players listed as
tight ends but who serve primarily as deep snappers.
There were 10 teams with at least six tight ends under contract and three clubs count at least seven tight ends on their rosters. The Minnesota
Vikings, where head coach Mike Tice is a former NFL tight end, currently count an amazing nine tight ends on the roster.
Some clubs simply can't get enough good tight ends. One example: The Kansas City Chiefs, who employ a multitude of two-tight end sets, but have the
preeminent Tony Gonzalez and the excellent but often overlooked Jason Dunn already on the payroll, used a second-round choice two weeks ago on Kris
Wilson of the University of Pittsburgh.
"The way the game is being played now, you need a very good (tight end), certainly," allowed Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis, whose team has been
seeking a viable tight end for years, and who sacrificed a second-round choice to move up just one spot in this year's draft to grab Winslow. "It's
become a key position again."
The re-emergence of the position is essentially a function of schematics, with changes on both sides of the ball dictating that tight ends become more
prominent. In many cases now, tight ends have replaced fullbacks on rosters, because the perception is that they are more utilitarian. All but four
franchises had at least three tight ends on the roster at the conclusion of the 2003 season. Tellingly, only about half of the 32 teams had more than
Very subtly, the NFL is shifting away from the West Coast offenses that predominated over the last 20 years, and more toward power sets. The West
Coast offense certainly was not geared to the tight end, although some players at the position enjoyed success in it, but the move to more balanced
alignments means the tight end is getting increased playing time.
While teams will continue to spread the field with receivers on third-and-long situations, at least one of the receivers increasingly has become a
tight end. Tight ends with wide receiver-level skills, in terms of catching the ball, are more often being used in the slot or "flexed" off the line.
The prolific Gonzalez rarely aligns as the traditional in-line tight end anymore. At their recent minicamp, the Atlanta Falcons showed that Alge
Crumpler, with some of the best hands on the team, will move off the line more in 2004.
“ It's become a 'must have' position again. It's really started to regain its stature. ”
— Todd Heap, Ravens tight end
A growing number of teams, led by the Indianapolis Colts, play with a two-tight end set as their base alignment now. Those teams deploy a traditional
tight end and an H-back or "move" back, who has replaced the fullback, and the formation certainly helps balance the strength of the offense while
sometimes dictating defensive fronts.
The latter element has become more important in recent years, as defenses have gotten away from playing a strongside linebacker over the tight end at
the line of scrimmage, and use the linebacker in "stacked" situations. Most defensive coordinators now prefer to use an end over the tight end. So
instead of having to seal off a 240-pound linebacker, tight ends are being asked to take on 290-pound defensive ends.
In the passing game, a tight end threat precludes defenses from doubling up as much on the wide receivers. For the run, having an extra tight end on
the field provides leverage, especially when a defense is playing eight "in the box." And because of their size and, in most cases, their athleticism,
tight ends can deliver an offense some clear mismatches.
"You want a meaningful presence in the middle of the field, between the hashes, and the tight end can give you that," said Colts offensive coordinator
Tom Moore. "Plus you have to get a bigger guy out there who can handle the (defensive ends). You get a guy like (Marcus) Pollard for us, a player with
basketball-type skills and a guy who can run deep through the secondary, he's hard to match up with."
Finally, there are simply coaches who love to have a lot of tight ends around, who have become very creative in tinkering with the position, and who
collect tight ends the way some people hoard Hummel figurines. Tampa Bay Bucs coach Jon Gruden, who currently numbers six tight ends on his roster,
loves to surround himself with tight ends.
And the return of Joe Gibbs in Washington, for sure, will dictate the Redskins carry five tight ends in 2004. In the past two months, Gibbs has
acquired four tight ends. Two weeks ago, he dealt a second-round pick in the '05 draft for an extra third-rounder this year, specifically to select
H-back Chris Cooley of Utah State. By comparison, under predecessor Steve Spurrier, the Redskins typically had two tight ends active for games.
The upshot is that, if this isn't quite the golden age for the tight end position, things have clearly improved dramatically in the past few years.
"It's become a 'must have' position again," said Baltimore Ravens standout Todd Heap, one of the NFL's premier tight ends. "It's really started to
regain its stature."
Around the league
Speaking of tight ends, the Detroit Lions, who have done a nice job of surrounding third-year quarterback Joey Harrington with more speed, are
attempting to add Stephen Alexander to the arsenal. Lions officials have been in substantive negotiations with the six-year veteran tight end for
about a week now and actually, ESPN.com confirmed, made contact with him before the draft. The often-injured Alexander, released earlier this
offseason by the San Diego Chargers, is said to be healthy again after a long battle with a severe groin injury that limited him to only three
appearances in 2003. Alexander, 28, also suffered through myriad leg injuries in 2001, when playing for Washington, and there is no doubt his medical
dossier must be carefully scrutinized. But the former Oklahoma star still possesses very good deep speed, can split the safeties, and has solid hands.
His best season came in 2000, when he posted 47 catches for the Redskins, and he had 25-plus catches in the four seasons in which he was able to stay
healthy. The Lions' starter in 2003 was rookie Casey FitzSimmons, an undrafted free agent who had just 23 catches, and isn't all that athletic. If the
Lions can grab Alexander for the right price, and are convinced he is healthy, he could be a nice addition to an improving offense.
Barring a last-minute change of plans, ESPN.com has learned quarterback Kurt Warner will meet in-person next week with New York Giants coach Tom
Coughlin, general manager Ernie Accorsi, and other club officials to explore the possibility of serving as the backup and mentor for first-round draft
choice Eli Manning. The Rams, of course, have granted Warner permission to speak with other franchises in advance of his release after June 1, when
his impact on the St. Louis salary cap for 2004 can be ameliorated. Even coach Mike Martz, who was holding out hope he might be able to convince
Warner to stay, has all but conceded the two-time league most valuable player will continue his career elsewhere. Beyond his physical condition, and
Warner continues to insist that he is healthy, the Giants' brain trust certainly will probe the veteran quarterback concerning his sentiments about
taking a step back in his career. But the reality is, there are very few jobs available, and Warner's best chance to log a few starts in 2004 and
perhaps attract some starting offers next spring is with the Giants.
Talk about predictable? It was all but a given that when the Giants fired Jim Fassel after the disastrous 2003 season when a team with Super Bowl
aspirations won four games, the organization would hire a head coach with a tough-guy reputation. It's just the natural flow of things in the NFL, a
kind of good cop-bad cop rotation that has gone on for years. So, voila, Tom Coughlin, a terrific coach with a proven track record, but also the knock
among players of being a bit of a martinet. Forget whether Coughlin really is the control freak he is made out to be. Players talk around the league,
Jaguars players felt their former coach was a tough guy, and that message made its way to the ears of Giants veterans when Coughlin was hired. So just
as predictable as the Giants' choice for head coach is the news that New York players have complained to their union that Coughlin's offseason
conditioning program allegedly oversteps the bounds stipulated by the collective bargaining agreement. The only surprise in the players' grievance is
that it came so quickly into Coughlin's brief tenure. Maybe the Coughlin Way is, indeed, in violation of league rules. NFL Players Association
executive director Gene Upshaw, who acknowledged the union had "gone after" Coughlin in Jacksonville, has asked for an investigation. But the smart
money says that, violations or not, some of the Giants' high-profile (did somebody say "prima donna"?) veterans determined shortly after Coughlin was
hired that they would not accept some of his alleged rigidity.
It's just two weeks after the draft and already two high-profile players, both first-round selections, have decided to switch agents. Former Oklahoma
defensive tackle Tommie Harris, the first-round choice of the Chicago Bears, has left Kennard McGuire and signed with Eugene Parker. The addition of
Harris further enhances a very strong draft class for Parker and his partner, Roosevelt Barnes, of Maximum Sports Management. But getting Harris,
which gives Parker and Barnes a combined four first-rounders (the most of any agents this year), might not be the end of the bounty. Miami safety Sean
Taylor, the first-round choice of the Washington Redskins, has surprisingly left agent Drew Rosenhaus, and there is a chance the fifth overall pick in
the draft could sign on with Parker as well. Washington officials, who have a tremendous relationship with both Rosenhaus and Parker, are quaking that
Taylor might retain Carl and Kevin Poston. The brothers are notorious for their difficult negotiating style and, more pertinent to the Redskins, have
a grievance against the franchise, alleging that Washington short-changed linebacker LaVar Arrington of $6.5 million in the contract extension he
signed five months ago. Also rumored to be in the hunt for Taylor is the tag team of Eugene Mato and Jeff Moorad. In addition to the pair of
first-rounders, disgruntled veteran Green Bay cornerback Mike McKenzie and agent Brian Parker have parted. The timing is unusual, given that McKenzie
is attempting to force a trade. McKenzie has been in the league five years and, once he hires a new representative, will be working with his fifth
The three-year contract extension signed by Marc Bulger on Tuesday runs through the 2007 season but, given the structure of the deal, no one should be
surprised if the St. Louis starting quarterback is back at the negotiating table following the '05 campaign. Provided, of course, that Bulger plays
well in the first two seasons of the contract. That's because in 2006, Bulger's base salary jumps to $5.123 million, and his cap charge spirals up to
$7.588 million. Bulger had originally signed the one-year, top-level qualifying offer of $1.824 million for the 2004 season. But the new contract,
which essentially voids that one-year deal, pays him a signing bonus of $9 million. It should be noted that the entire payment is indeed a signing
bonus, and is not split, with a second-level option bonus. The base salaries are $455,000 (for 2004), $545,000 (2005), $5.123 million (2006) and $3.95
million (2007). There are workout bonuses of $5,600 for 2004, of $6,160 for '05 and '06, and of $6,720 for '07. So the three-year veteran will make
$10 million and change for the first two seasons and then, if things are going well, get to restructure the contract, likely with an extension.
On another contract front involving a high-profile quarterback, ESPN.com has obtained the figures for the new three-year deal signed by Drew Bledsoe
of Buffalo last week, and they show that the team realized a 2004 salary cap savings of $4.18 million by reworking the pact. The three-year contract
is worth $18.5 million and drops Bledsoe's cap charge for 2004 from $8.33 million to a much more palatable $4.147 million. Bledsoe, who is coming off
the worst season of his career, received a $6.5 million signing bonus. His base salaries will be $2.25 million (for 2004), $3.3 million (2005) and
$4.35 million (2006). There are roster bonuses of $1.05 million each for 2005 and 2006. The salary cap charge will rise to $6.5 million for '05 and to
$8.316 million for '06, but those are still far less than the cap charges for those seasons under the old contract. As noted here in the past, Bledsoe
was due an option bonus of $7 million by Nov. 1 of this year to trigger the 2005-2007 segment of the contract he originally signed with the New
England Patriots in 2001. Had the Bills agreed to pay that option bonus, Bledsoe would have been compensated in 2004 to the tune of $13 million and
would have earned $25.5 million 2004-2006. But it is very doubtful, given his 2003 performance, that the Bills organization would have made such a
huge commitment. Instead, the club likely would not have made the $7 million option payment in November and Bledsoe would have become an unrestricted
free agent next spring. That fate, as players like Kerry Collins and Kurt Warner might attest, isn't nearly as attractive as it once might have been.
So Bledsoe and the Bills made a mutually beneficial move. Bledsoe will still earn $8.75 million this year, hardly chump change, and the Bills get to
keep the 11-year veteran around, probably for at least two more seasons, to help tutor heir apparent J.P. Losman.
There is an interesting move on the Atlanta Falcons defense, with three-time Pro Bowl middle/inside linebacker Keith Brooking, the best performer on
the NFL's worst unit, switching back to the weakside spot he played in his first three seasons. In the defense being implemented by rookie coach Jim
Mora and coordinator Ed Donatell, the weakside spot is a key playmaker role, and Brooking still has the range and explosiveness to fill the job
description. But it was Brooking who embraced the switch to middle linebacker when the Falcons released Jessie Tuggle in training camp 2001, and it
was the move that made him a Pro Bowl performer. Likewise, Brooking is in favor of the most recent move, and many scouts always felt he was better
suited to playing in space anyway. But after carving a niche in the middle the past three seasons, and earning annual trips to Honolulu, how well
Brooking operates at a position he hasn't played since 2000 will be one of the more compelling subplots of the Atlanta training camp. With Brooking
moving to weakside linebacker, Chris Draft will have a chance to earn the starting spot in the middle, but he will have some competition. The Falcons
last week signed free agent Jamie Duncan, just days after he was released by the Rams, and he has extensive experience at the middle linebacker spot.
Duncan is familiar to Falcons general manager Rich McKay, who drafted him when he held the same title in Tampa Bay, and that helped Atlanta strike a
quick deal with the six-year veteran. And the Falcons got a bargain deal, a one-year contract worth just $560,000 (a base salary of $535,000 and
$25,000 signing bonus), for a player who could well win a starting job.
The honeymoon in Miami might be over between the Dolphins and wide receiver David Boston, acquired in a trade last month. Boston missed practice time
this week because of a shin injury, but word is that the enigmatic receiver still hasn't lost the weight that the club wants him to shed. Boston
reportedly got as high as 260 pounds with the Chargers in 2003 and the Dolphins feel he will be more productive at 235. But his weight has hovered in
the 240-pound range lately and Boston doesn't seem to be making a concerted effort to get much lower than that. There are unsubstantiated reports of a
brief verbal contretemps between Boston and one of the Dolphins assistants. If the reports are accurate, it could signal that Boston has no plans to
change, despite his promises to make things work with his new employers.
It's easy to commiserate with New York Jets reserve tailback LaMont Jordan, who for three seasons has served as the caddy to future Hall of Fame
member Curtis Martin, and who is now requesting to be traded. A second-round choice in the 2001 draft, Jordan is regarded as a power-type back with
great potential. But because he has logged only 169 rushing attempts in three years, even teams that like Jordan and might consider trading for him,
cannot accurately project, they say, how he would perform as a starter. Every year, it seems, New York officials and coach Herm Edwards suggest that
Jordan is going to have his workload significantly increased. And every season, it seems, those good intentions never materialize. Jordan and agent
Alvin Keels huddled this with team executives, and the outcome was not promising for the young veteran. The Jets will likely force Jordan to play
under his existing contract, at a base salary of $455,000, and with a workout bonus of $25,000. If the team does offer an extension, to keep Jordan
around for the long-term, it won't be commensurate with starter's money. The upshot: Jordan will probably have to play this season under his current
contract, be as productive as possible, and try to create a market when he goes into unrestricted free agency next March.
Green Bay officials continue to struggle to finish a deal with quarterback Tim Couch, in large part because the former Cleveland Browns starter is
balking at a deal that would put him on the bench behind Brett Favre for a couple seasons, and the Packers will consider switching directions. The
Packers will meet early next week with journeyman quarterback Damon Huard, a seven-year veteran who spent the past three seasons in New England, and
is now generating considerable interest from several franchises. Despite not having completed a pass since the 2000 season, Huard recently auditioned
for the Giants and then met with Kansas City officials earlier this week. It appears that New York coaches feel Huard, 30, and with six starts on his
resume, decided the quarterback lacks the arm strength they want. But the Chiefs, who lost backup Jonathan Quinn to Chicago in free agency, have
legitimate interest in Huard. And the Packers, unless they can narrow the bargaining gap with Couch, could get serious about him as well.
Despite recent reports that middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter will sign with the Eagles after he is released by the Washington Redskins next month,
don't look for the veteran to be headed back to Philadelphia for a second stint. Most fans will recall that Trotter signed with Washington in 2002
after the Eagles rescinded the "franchise" label with which they had designated him. Philadelphia coaches are split over the play of middle 'back Mark
Simoneau, a first-year starter in 2003, and some would like to upgrade. But if there is a change, it won't be with Trotter, who already has been
replaced by Michael Barrow by the Redskins. Look for Seattle and Houston to perhaps court Trotter when he is released.
Punts: How dramatic has been the overhaul promulgated by coach Marvin Lewis on the Cincinnati Bengals roster? Of the 53 players on the roster at the
conclusion of the 2002 season, under then-coach Dick LeBeau, 35 are no longer with the franchise. ... Look for unrestricted free agent quarterback
Kordell Stewart to make a decision on where he will play in 2004 within the next week or two. Stewart's options appear to be the Buffalo Bills and the
Denver Broncos. The Broncos will convene for a minicamp this weekend and figure to have a better feel for their direction at backup quarterback
following the three days of workouts. ... Veteran center Jerry Fontenot will probably re-sign with New Orleans next week, most likely a one-year deal,
but won't return to the starting job that he has held with the Saints for past seven seasons. The plan is to move left guard LeCharles Bentley, a
center in college, to the hub. Left guard Kendyl Jacox will flip to the right side and second-year veteran Montrae Holland will become the starting
left guard. Fontenot would essentially be a nice, veteran insurance policy. ... With the expansion of NFL practice squads to eight players, look for
virtually all teams to stash a fourth quarterback on the roster. There were 17 quarterbacks chosen in this year's draft, including a dozen on the
second day, and 10 in the sixth and seventh rounds. Many of those late-rounders will benefit from the increased practice squads. ... Seattle
second-round choice Michael Boulware, a linebacker at Florida State, looked shaky at times playing strong safety in last week's minicamp. But coach
Mike Holmgren and defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes maintained they are committed to Boulware at the new position and feel that he will eventually
become a standout performer there.
Stat of the week: The Indianapolis Colts current roster includes at least one player each from 10 of the 11 universities in the Big 10. The only Big
10 program not represented on the roster? Indiana University, just a 75-minute drive from the Colts complex.
The last word: "When I go to Disney World with my kids, I can get in every ride. What more do you need than that?" -- defensive tackle Vince Wilfork,
the first-round choice of the New England Patriots, on past problems with his weight.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.