It’s a little ironic to see the Patriots trying to replace their just-retired tight end – drafted in 2010 – with a tight end the team originally drafted in 2004.
And it underscores a few different things. The timelessness of Benjamin Watson. The fleeting career of Rob Gronkowski. And the fact the Patriots are flying by the seat of their pants trying to fill a position that, since 2010, has been critical to the success of the Patriots offense.
Which is no disrespect to Watson. who’s one of seven players drafted in 2004 still playing (The others? Eli Manning, Larry Fitzgerald, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and punters Andy Lee and Donnie Jones).
Originally taken with the 32nd pick in 2004, Watson was on the verge of retirement this offseason, but it looks like he's on his way back to Foxboro. ESPN's Adam Schefter reports the Patriots signed the 38-year-old to a one-year, $3 million contract.
He’s still a productive player, making 35 catches for the Saints last year after pulling in 61 for the Ravens in 2017 and 74 for New Orleans in 2016.
That he can still produce at 38 also speaks to what an amazing athlete he is. Take a look at the Patriots weight room records. This was posted back in 2013 – Watson held the tight end bench press record at 495 and the 40-yard dash record at 4.52. He benched 535 in college. He can more than hold his own at the point of attack.
The ultimate plan at tight end is hard to suss out and – since the players at the spot are all new – it’s even harder to project how prominent a role the position will have in the passing offense.
Currently, the Patriots have Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Matt LaCosse at the position. ASJ had a 50-catch season in 2017 (he played just five games last year) and LaCosse had 24 catches for 250 last season.
If you throw Watson in the stew, there’s a manageable amount of proficiency between the three of them to possibly replicate an average season from Gronk.
What needs to be remembered, though, is the relationship Brady developed with Gronk as a receiver.
Brady talked in the past about being able to read and anticipate throws based on simply watching Gronk run downfield. There were tells in his body position that Brady picked up over years together.
"I remember a couple years ago, we threw in April, like 40 passes, and we hit them all," Brady said last September. “I know his body language. I know his ability to run and what routes -- he can do really all the routes. It's just a matter of giving him a chance. …
Playing together as long as we have and as many opportunities to grow from experience that we've had on the field are really important. So it's trust, it's dependability, and then it's ability to execute under pressure when it matters the most."
That fact is you can’t just dump new guys on the table and say to Brady and Josh McDaniels, “Here. Use these.” It takes months to even build a foundation.
The decision isn’t all on the Patriots, of course. At almost 39 with seven children (including newborn twins), Watson frequently uses his platform to advocate passionately about social issues. He’s got a lot on his plate and a, “Come into camp and we’ll see how it goes …” offer may not be real enticing.
The Patriots could have made life a little simpler on themselves by drafting one of the myriad tight ends available in this draft. Or the one before (seventh-round blocking tight ends don't move the needle). Or the one before that. Or the one before that. They chose not to.
They could have chased Jesse James (signed with the Lions) or gone harder after Jared Cook before Gronk retired. Or Gronk could have retired earlier so the Patriots had his dough off the books and they could have shopped harder. We can backseat drive all day long on this position.
But the reality now is that it's tight end casserole for the Patriots.
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