At a March 30 speaking engagement to around 1,300 students, faculty and staff at Bryant University, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was asked about the status of current Pro Bowl linebacker Tedy Bruschi, whose future remains in doubt, the result of a mild stroke suffered in mid-February.
"He comes in (to the stadium) regularly; he's there every day," Belichick said. "It was a serious situation and he's getting better. The comments he's made on it, I wouldn't have anything else to add. Tedy is Tedy. He's an upbeat guy. He has a smile on his face like he always does."
But he hasn't yet determined if and when he will play football again, leaving the Patriots to move forward in search of a replacement. But inside linebacker is hardly New England's only need.
It has yet to fill the hole left by guard Joe Andruzzi's departure and certainly will not use a high draft pick and the accompanying high salary on a guard. So look for New England to either draft one on Day Two or sign a veteran to compete with the likes of Russ Hochstein, Stephen Neal and Gene Mruczkowski in training camp.
New England has brought in veterans Bob Hallen, Bill Conaty, Rich Tylski and Joe Panos in the past and none has played a regular season down. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has done a remarkable job developing young linemen like the three aforementioned young guards along with tackles Tom Ashworth and Brandon Gorin and center Dan Koppen.
"That's why I keep saying Dante is one of the best offensive line coaches, one of the best coaches I've ever worked with and one of the best coaches in the league," Belichick said. "His players play well. He gets young, inexperienced players to raise their level of play relatively quickly."
New defensive coordinator Eric Mangini also has done that of late while coaching the secondary. In 2003, rookie Eugene Wilson started 15 games at safety while fellow rookie Asante Samuel manned the nickel back spot. This past season, injuries forced Samuel and rookie Randall Gay into starting roles and both performed well.
Depending on the draft value where the Patriots pick, it's not out of the question that New England could tab another young corner early in the draft with veterans Duane Starks and Tyrone Poole in place as short-term solutions.
Then there is wide receiver. The team signed free agent Tim Dwight, but he's been the only addition to a group that lost David Patten in free agency and let Troy Brown walk. There is a still a chance Brown returns, but he wouldn't be expected to be any more than the team's fourth receiver.
So despite having four wideouts younger than 25 in Deion Branch, David Givens, Bethel Johnson and P.K. Sam, New England could use young talented wideout.
--The defending Super Bowl champs went back to work Monday with the April 4 start of the team's voluntary offseason program.
Younger players and those recovering from injuries returned a couple of weeks ago, but the veterans reported Monday to begin a program that 11th year linebacker Ted Johnson called "rigorous."
"The offseason has always been demanding here," Johnson said. "Expectations have been that you will be involved and participate. I look forward to it, but I'm a gym rat. I don't think most guys are. I say I'm going to work when I'm going to the weight room and that blows people away, but it's not a casual recreational activity for me. You're being evaluated in the offseason."
Fellow linebacker Rosevelt Colvin doesn't share Johnson's enthusiasm for the program but understands and accepts its benefits.
"I don't really like the offseason program," Colvin said. "I wish the season just continued so we wouldn't have all this, but I understand that it's part of it and it's something we have to do."
So two months removed from repeating as Super Bowl champions, the Patriots will officially begin preparations for a second straight title defense as they look to become the first team in the Super Bowl era to win three straight titles.
Johnson believes that any talk about last season will quickly be squashed even before the May passing camps, June mini-camp or even the end of April.
"We take our cue from our head coach," Johnson said. "He manages his employees. He's never going to rest on his laurels and he won't expect us to. Any evidence of that gets nipped in the bud."
Having won three championships in four years including the last two, the Patriots understand what it takes to climb to the top of the mountain. They also understand they are now back at the bottom with 31 other teams. The ascent began earlier this week.
"I think there's a piece of the offseason program that contributes to success for sure. If you have a high attendance, it helps even more." Johnson expects a high participation rate until the program ends after the June mini-camp. "That's what it's been so why would it be any different this year?"
The highly attended program consists of more than just conditioning and weight room work, although that is certainly part of it.
"I think every coach has an opinion on what works and what doesn't work," Colvin said. "I think (strength and conditioning coach) Mike Woicik's method is more helpful. He implements a lot outside the weight room that is position specific and can improve basic fundamentals. His program pushes your body to achieve. We run every single day. So you better be ready to work."
--The Patriots currently have nine picks in the upcoming college draft. But in some ways they will have a much bigger group of newcomers trying to make an impact this season because of some of last year's draftees that either were injured or didn't play much.
First round pick Benjamin Watson, third round pick Guss Scott and fifth round pick P.K. Sam all finished the season on injured reserve after playing in a combined four games while defensive lineman Marquise Hill, a second round pick, was inactive 13 games and played in just one in what amounted to a redshirt season.
Belichick said Hill's lack of opportunity was just circumstantial and not a reflection of his ability or lack thereof. "We carried more linebackers to the games last year, which was a reflection of our special teams," he said. "Our outside linebackers function as defensive ends in a lot of cases so we went a little short on the defensive line and we went a little thin on the offensive line, which enabled us to carry more skill players to match up on offense and defense and have a little more speed on the field on special teams.
"I think Marquise is going to be a competitive player and he probably would have been this year had he had the opportunity to play. In 2003, the defensive rookies had so many opportunities because of the injuries we had. But look who he was playing behind. It doesn't mean he's not a good player or that he can't play, but he wasn't better than Richard Seymour or Jarvis Green or Ty Warren. It was the same thing with Ty Warren (in 2003). He wasn't better than Seymour or Green or Bobby Hamilton or Ted Washington. He played a little bit, but ad year later it's a different story."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Every single day, Bill (Belichick) is worrying about the next victory, not the last. He's setting the example." - Linebacker Rosevelt Colvin.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
With the first wave of free agency long over and the March owners' meetings completed, this should be the Patriots time to make their free agent splash. Yet they remain quiet as they prepare for the draft. New England signed only one free agent in March, but is likely to make a move or two in the next week or so before reassessing again after the draft and working to fill any remaining needs before training camp.
The Patriots are typically patient in free agency and don't make many early splashes. Last year, the club signed cornerback Jeff Burris on April 28 and Terrell Buckley on June 8. Don Davis originally joined the club on May 16, 2003 while Roman Phifer was signed in August of 2001 and Keith Traylor signed on March 31 of last year.
So expect the Patriots to tweak the roster before the draft and continue doing so after it. But the players will be of Burris' and Davis' ilk rather than that of Rodney Harrison and Rosevelt Colvin, who both signed within the first two weeks of free agency's kickoff when they came to New England.
1. Inside linebacker. The news that Tedy Bruschi hired an agent to protect his rights and may sit out 2005 while he recovers from a mild stroke and a reported surgery to repair a hole in his heart further accentuates the Patriots need to find an inside linebacker who can contribute immediately in the team's 3-4 defense. There isn't much left in the free agent market to replace Bruschi although rumors abound that Colts free agent Rob Morris might be on New England's radar despite never having played in a 3-4 base defense. New England could try to go the trade route as it did with Corey Dillon last year and more recently with cornerback Duane Starks. It's unlikely that any of the available inside linebackers in the draft could be counted upon to start in the Patriots defense in 2005. If Bruschi sits out, that leaves 32-year-old Ted Johnson as the only proven, experienced inside linebacker on the Patriots roster. This might be a position New England needs to address with both a veteran and a draft pick to develop. Even with Bruschi, the Patriots need a shot of youth at inside linebacker.
2. Wide receiver. David Patten and Troy Brown are gone and David Givens has yet to sign his restricted free agent tender. That leaves Deion Branch as the only productive returning receiver under contract along with newly acquired Tim Dwight, inconsistent third-year speedster Bethel Johnson and second-year man P.K. Sam. The Patriots would like to re-sign Brown, but until they do, this dremains a position of need.
3. Offensive line. Starting LG Joe Andruzzi left in free agency and T Tom Ashworth has to prove he can overcome back problems to reclaim his starting right tackle job. But the Pats are thin across the front with Matt Light, Ashworth and Brandon Gorin the only experienced tackles while Stephen Neal, and to an extent, Russ Hochstein the only experienced guards. There isn't much individual talent in the group although Gene Mruczkowski may be ready to take the step that Ashworth, Neal and Gorin took in their development and vie for playing time as Andruzzi's replacement. Look for the Pats to sigh a veteran and use a second day draft pick on a lineman. A young corner may also still be on the radar screen even after the team traded for Duane Starks.