Team Notes: New England Patriots

Bill Belichick knows that success or failure closest to the ball has a great impact on winning or losing, and last year, his team struggled more than he ever could have anticipated on the offensive and defensive lines.

So while his free agent signings have focused on slowing down opposing passing attacks with the addition of pass rushing linebacker Rosevelt Colvin and defensive backs Tyrone Poole and Rodney Harrison, Belichick also is looking for linemen. So far he has come up empty.

The Patriots had a scheduled visit with veteran free agent defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina canceled when the former Ram inked a deal with the division rival Miami Dolphins. Earlier in the offseason, they lost out on Titans free agent John Thornton, who took the money to sign with Cincinnati. They also have been unable to secure an agreement with another former Ram, center/guard Andy McCollum. Both lines remain in need of reinforcements and the free agent talent pool is starting to dwindle.

But the Patriots certainly are not done signing free agents. Since Belichick arrived in 2000, the club has been active in the market through June, July and even into August and September. Current starters Roman Phifer (Aug. 3, 2001), Bobby Hamilton (July 16, 2000), Otis Smith (Aug. 23, 2000), Joe Andruzzi (Sept. 9, 2000) and Antowain Smith (June 7, 2001) all signed with team in what is often termed the post-June 1 market. In his first three years as head coach, Belichick has signed 14 free agents after the draft.

"If you're going to be a contender, you'd better be pro-active in free agency," Super Bowl winning Head Coach Jon Gruden said to assembled media at the Scouting Combine in February, "and not necessarily out of the block. We picked up Keenan McCardell and Roman Oben in June."

Both of those players started all season for Tampa and helped the team win its first World Championship just as all of the aforementioned Patriots late signings were instrumental parts of the 2001 Super Bowl-winning team.

McCollum, who will likely choose between the Patriots and Rams, is close to making his choice after taking some free agent visits. He still has some leverage as an experienced starter, but would almost certainly lose some of that after teams address their needs in the upcoming NFL Draft. However, the first week after the draft can be another hot time for free agents because teams that were unable to address needs in the draft may be desperate to scoop up any remaining talent.

New England could certainly use McCollum on an offensive line that entered the 2002 season expecting to be a strength of the team, but ended up a weakness. The problems started in training camp when 2001 starting right tackle Greg Randall lost his job to the inexperienced Kenyatta Jones, who struggled, while guard Joe Andruzzi and center Damien Woody battled ailments for parts or most of the season.

The Patriots were barely able to put their Super Bowl starting line on the field together for any extended stretch and the depth wasn't talented enough to keep the line play at a high level. Back-to-back training camp retirements by Joe Panos (2001) and Rich Tylski (2002) didn't help matters. Those signings do indicate; however, Belichick's desire to acquire experienced depth for his front five rather than rely on the bodies currently residing on the bench.

If nothing else, McCollum would provide insurance for Andruzzi, who while tough, has been hurt in each of his three years with the Patriots. He also could be insurance in case the team is unable to re-sign center Damien Woody following the 2003 season when the current three-year starter is scheduled to hit free agency.

With the 14th and 19th picks in the draft, the Patriots can reasonably expect to land one of the defensive linemen in this year's deep class, but they also will continue looking for experienced help to rotate into the lineup. Anthony Pleasant, Bobby Hamilton, Rick Lyle, Jarvis Green and Richard Seymour are the only experienced pure defensive linemen on the roster. Even if a rookie first rounder is added to that mix, the Patriots might be in some trouble if any of those players gets hurt, which at least one inevitably will. Also, the talent level of that group is average at best.

Lyle is coming off a year where he battled injuries and was barely noticeable, and the aging Pleasant didn't show up nearly as much as he did in 2001. Hamilton, at 280 pounds, wears down when asked to play too much as he may have been last season when injuries and an overall lack of talent limited the defensive line rotation. Green should be improved in his second year and Seymour may start to dominate in his third year. But that group still needs help.

There are no top-level linemen still looking for work, but plenty of capable bodies remain. With the big money contracts likely done, it may be the Patriots time to shine. Finding starters in late-April, May and June usually means finding value because the prices tend to be lower and if the player signs a one-year deal, he plays with something to prove.

New England will not survive if it enters the season with virtually the same line groups with which it finished 2002. Expect help in the draft and watch the free agent wire all the way up to and through training camp.

Team Notes: 

--The Patriots will open and close the season against the much-improved Buffalo Bills and former quarterback Drew Bledsoe, traveling to Buffalo in Week One and closing out with a Saturday afternoon game on Dec. 27 against the Bills at Gillette Stadium. They also will open with two road games for the third time in franchise history. The last time the Patriots opened with two road games was 1996 -- they lost both but went on to capture the AFC Championship.

The home opener is Week Three against the rival Jets. They will also play one Monday night game at Denver on Nov. 3 and will host former Patriots coach Bill Parcells' Dallas Cowboys in a Sunday night match-up on Nov. 16. In fact, this year will be the ninth straight season the Patriots play Denver -- an unusual scenario for a non-division opponent. New England is 2-6 in the last eight games against Denver.

The last two games of the season -- at the Jets and home against Buffalo -- are both nationally televised Saturday games. The Patriots have the eighth toughest schedule in the NFL based on the 2002 finish of its opponents (.527). While New England will travel three out of the first four weeks, it will be home for three of the last four including two December match-ups against warm weather clubs Miami and Jacksonville. It's trip to Miami will be in October for the third straight year and the Patriots have wilted in the heat the last two, getting blown out by a combined 56-23 score. The bye week is Week 10, which is helpful since it comes following a Monday night game and precedes the date with Parcells' Cowboys.

--Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis were in South Florida the first week of April to work out injured University of Miami running back Willis McGahee. The former Hurricane star is reportedly way ahead of schedule on his rehab from a severe knee injury suffered in the National Championship game loss to Ohio State. There is now speculation that McGahee, who would have been a top five pick before the injury, might be able to play some in 2003, although there are several teams that might be willing to use a high pick on him and allow him to continue rehab and strength work through the 2003 season before giving him his full-blown chance in 2004.

The Patriots are a team that may consider doing that, although it would be difficult to imagine them using one of their two first rounders on McGahee. However, if the Patriots trade Tebucky Jones for an extra second or third round pick, they might consider taking McGahee in one of those rounds, although it would not be shocking to see the Raiders use one of their two firsts on the injured runner since all of their backs are over 30 and they could certainly wait a year before giving him the opportunity to beat out Charlie Garner.

--The Patriots reportedly have a visit scheduled with University of Tennessee wide receiver Kelley Washington, who will be either a first or second round draft choice. Washington is a 6-2 1/2, 215-pound wideout who would provide the Patriots the big receiver they lack. He also is coming off surgery on his C5 and C6 vertebrae, but apparently checked out OK at the Combine. Cincinnati defensive end Antwan Peek, Notre Dame center Jeff Faine and Minnesota cornerback Mike Lehan also have visited Foxborough. NFL teams are allowed to bring in 20 prospects for a visit from outside their metro area. There is no limit on the amount of local prospects that can be brought in for visits nor is there a limit on how many players a team can meet with if it travels to the player.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm playing along the whole front anyway. So where I end up is fine with me. I'm just ready to get back out there and start making plays again. If I'm at nose tackle or at end, it's fine with me." -- Defensive lineman Richard Seymour on the possibility of being moved outside fulltime.

Team Skinny: 

The Patriots signed an offer sheet with Seattle restricted free-agent defensive tackle Cedric Woodard. The Seahawks have until April to decide whether to match. If they don't, New England will send a sixth-round draft pick to Seattle.

NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES: DL, WR, CB. Since the Patriots have addressed their pass rushing need with the Rosevelt Colvin signing, they must turn their draft focus to big defensive linemen who can stuff the run, whether that is from the inside or the end. Whether the guy plays inside or out may not matter much in Belichick's two-gap scheme where linemen are head up on an offensive lineman as opposed to in the gaps trying to penetrate. Richard Seymour is the player the Patriots are building around, but they also like second-year pro Jarvis Green, who gained some experience as a rookie fourth-round pick last year. Bobby Hamilton is an effective player when his reps are managed well, which makes finding versatile linemen a bigger need so that a strong rotation can be used. Anthony Pleasant probably will see his role reduced to a situational one, which could help his overall effectiveness. Colvin will likely be used down the edge on third down, which will help some of the other rushers. If New England can land an inside lineman with the skill to collapse the pocket, the Colvin signing will be even more valuable. The Patriots will use one of their first round picks to address this position.

It's been all defense for New England so far and while the offensive line could use another capable body given the instability at right tackle and guard Joe Andruzzi's injury history, a big wide receiver remains a big need. The Pats are essentially three deep at receiver with Troy Brown, David Patten and Deion Branch, but they lack a receiver with size and speed who can make plays on the ball over defenders, especially in the red zone. They obviously feel it's a need after their failed Donald Hayes experiment. So look for New England to tap the wide receiver market before all is said and done. Brown is heading into his 11th season and will need to be replaced soon. If the Patriots don't deem this an immediate pressing need, this could be a position to watch in the draft where a player would get the time to develop. If not, watch the free agent wire, especially in April when the restricted free agent deadline approaches and the team could make an offer after some of the available money has dried up.

Cornerback is back on the list since the Colvin signing. Despite the addition of Tyrone Poole, New England still has to infuse some young talent here. Ty Law has an outrageous cap number and while he not in danger of losing is job because of it now, the Patriots have to look down the road and Law could be getting too pricey. Combine his escalating salaries with Otis Smith's age -- he will be 38 in October -- and New England needs top-level players at this position. Poole is a solid nickel corner and probably an adequate No. 2 guy, but he is not a long-term answer for the Pats. If New England could find a way to draft one of the top two corners and still land a defensive lineman, it would make this one of the best offseasons in recent history.

FRANCHISE PLAYER: S Tebucky Jones (tendered at $3.043 million).


UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: S Chris Hayes (the re-signing of Je'Rod Cherry and the signing of Chris Akins have likely ended his stint with the Pats); DL Bernard Holsey (will only be brought back to compete if the team lacks bodies heading into training camp); S Rob Kelly (after year in IR and another out of football, Kelly's career could be over); C/G Grey Ruegamer (with the Patriots bringing Rams free agent Andy McCollum in for a visit, it appears they are moving on from Ruegamer, who is not as good as McCollum, but would fill the same role on the roster).

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers): WR Fred Coleman (not tendered as ERFA).

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: LB Matt Chatham (tendered at $605,000 with no compensation; a solid special teamer with limited defensive experience who may have a hard time making the club this summer); S Victor Green (has individually negotiated right of first refusal; has some feelers from other clubs' the Rodney Harrison signing could be bad news for Green's chances to return to New England); FB Patrick Pass (tendered at $605,000 with 7th-round pick as compensation; a serviceable special teamer with backup ability as a versatile fullback).

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: OL Matt Knutson (tendered at $225,000); OG Stephen Neal (tendered at $375,000; former world class wrestler will battle for a starting job this year).

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: TE Fred Baxter (UFA; $780,000/1 yr, $25,000 SB; terms unknown); S Je'Rod Cherry (UFA; $680,000/1 yr, $25,000 SB/$100,000 base guarantee; 2003 cap: $475,000); CB Ben Kelly (RFA; $605,000/1 yr); DE Rick Lyle (UFA; $680,000/1 yr, $25,000 SB; 2003 cap: $475,000); LS Lonie Paxton (RFA; $3.075M/5 yrs, $305,000 SB; 2003 cap: $517,000); LB Maugaula Tuitele (ERFA; $300,000/1 yr).

PLAYERS ACQUIRED: S Chris Akins (UFA Browns; $555,000/1 yr, $25,000 SB; 2003 cap: $475,000); LB Rosevelt Colvin (UFA Bears; $25.9M/6 yrs, $6M SB; 2003 cap: $1.56M); S Rodney Harrison (FA Chargers; $14.49M/6 yrs, $2.5M SB; 2003 cap: $1.08M); FB Fred McCrary (FA Chargers; 2 yrs, terms unknown); CB Tyrone Poole (UFA Broncos; $8M/4 yrs, $1.8M SB; 2003 cap: $1.1M).

PLAYERS LOST: CB Terrell Buckley (UFA Dolphins; $755,000/1 yr); TE Cam Cleeland (UFA Rams; $555,000/1 yr, $25,000 SB); FB Marc Edwards (UFA Jaguars; $3M/3 yrs, $875,000 SB); WR Donald Hayes (cut); OT Greg Randall (Trade Texans).

MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.

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