Top TE prospects come with injury risks

FOXBOROUGH -- It might be reading too much into a statement of fact from Patriots coach Bill Belichick, but still, one couldn't help but wonder if he's wrestling with a tight end dilemma in this year's NFL draft.

Belichick was a big tight end guy early in his Patriots tenure.

He traded up to select Daniel Graham in the 2002 first round, and used the final selection of the 2004 first round on Benjamin Watson. In his first seven years in New England, he drafted nine tight ends.

In the last three, however, the Patriots haven't drafted one and they have a significant need to develop a talented, young player at the position.

This year, with a league-high 12 draft choices and four within the top 53, it would hardly be shocking if Belichick returns to his tight end roots. And that's where the dilemma comes into play.

In answering a question Wednesday on what defines the 2010 NFL draft, Belichick highlighted one aspect that makes it different from the norm.

"There are a lot of medical questions about players, particularly at the top of the draft or players in some cases that I'm sure will be drafted high that didn't even play football last year," he said. "I think that's a little bit unusual to have the number of players that will be first-round players, high second-round players -- whatever it will be -- that were out of football a year ago."

Belichick didn't specify who he was speaking about, but it seems clear he was referencing the tight end spot and top prospects Jermaine Gresham (Oklahoma) and Rob Gronkowski (Arizona).

Gresham (6-5, 261) missed last season after undergoing surgery on his right knee to repair torn cartilage, while Gronkowski (6-6, 264) was sidelined all year and had back surgery to repair a herniated disc and nerve damage.

Would the Patriots, if in position to fill their large tight end void with a top-rated player, feel comfortable drafting someone in the first or early second round who didn't play in 2009?

Belichick didn't answer that question Wednesday at his pre-draft news conference, but from a general perspective, it seems risky and something the Patriots would prefer to avoid. Part of the reason the team's first-round draft record is solid under Belichick is that it has limited risk -- instead of going for the long bomb, it has been content to take the check-down option.

Consider that one of the things Belichick liked about the team's top selection last year, safety Patrick Chung, was his consistent production over time. He had played as much as any prospect in the 2009 draft, which created more clarity in the scouting process.

When it comes to the top of the tight end class this year, such clarity doesn't exist. So say the Patriots are on the clock at No. 22 and Gresham is still available while their preferred defensive targets are not, do they take the plunge?

One could argue that the tight end position, especially given the limited pass-catching production in the Patriots' offense of late, doesn't warrant such a high selection. The counter-argument is that a potentially explosive player like Gresham could add a new dimension to the attack that makes the tight end relevant again, and in turn, makes the team's receivers that much more dangerous.

If the Patriots don't come away with a top tight end in the draft, in-house options of Alge Crumpler, Robbie Agnone and Rob Myers don't overwhelm. So the need is there, but so too is the risk.

It's part of what makes this draft unusual and it's part of the dilemma that a team considering a top tight end, such as the Patriots, must grapple with.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.