Team Report: Patriots

With the draft fast approaching, the Patriots seem to be working furiously to address their obvious needs before asking unproven college talent to fill their remaining holes. But while the club has entertained various free agents over the past couple of weeks, it has yet to reel in the likes of Jeff Zgonina, Andy McCollum, Cedric Woodard or Oronde Gadsden - three of which are now off the market.

After losing Zgonina to Miami and McCollum back to the Rams, the Patriots signed Woodard, a restricted free agent defensive lineman from the Seahawks, to an offer sheet that Seattle eventually matched while also courting Gadsden, a former Dolphins receiver who would fit the Patriots need for a bigger possession-type of pass catcher.

Despite the team's willingness to open its wallet this year to land coveted free agents Rosevelt Colvin, Rodney Harrison and Tyrone Poole, it has hardly taken a spend-at-all-cost approach, instead sticking with its philosophy that preaches financial discipline. The latest free agent visitors who have either signed elsewhere or remain unsigned provide evidence that New England is not on some ridiculous Redskins-type shopping spree.

There is a perception growing; however, that the Patriots altered that approach this offseason by throwing a $6 million signing bonus at Colvin while paying Poole and Harrison $1.8 million and $2.5 million signing bonuses respectively. All three of those bonuses were the largest paid out by the Patriots to another team's free agent since Bill Belichick took control of the team in February of 2000.

But did New England change its philosophy or did it sign good value contracts in a year when it had more maneuverability under the salary cap than in recent years? Colvin won't comment specifically on any other offers, but he sheds a smile when asked if he indeed turned down as much as $12 million up front from the Cardinals to sign with the Patriots.

Desperate for a pass rusher, the Patriots landed a sought after speed linebacker with 21 sacks over the last two seasons without paying an exorbitant amount, relatively speaking of course.

In acquiring Poole, who the coaches hope will vie for a starting cornerback job while, at the very least, filling the nickel back role, New England spent about $2 million less in signing bonus money than many other teams paid for starting caliber corners, and that doesn't include the Lions ridiculous $6.5 million paid to Dre Bly up front. The more typical bonus paid to starting level corners this year was $3.5 million to $4 million.

The same goes for Harrison, who signed a six-year deal allegedly worth $14.5 million, but with a hardly prohibitive $2.5 million guarantee. Those bonuses appear to be equal to or below the market value for similar type players.

"We're trying to build a team," Patriots Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli insists, "and if you deviate too much and go too much on the high end with too many players, you're not going to be able to build a team and spread available cash out to be strong in all positions."

That is Patriots team-building strategy in a nutshell. They are not against signing high-priced free agents, they simply want to find the balance in doing so that also allows them to be stronger at the bottom of the roster than teams that take a different approach. That is why the coming months will be just as important for Pioli and the Patriots as the start of free agency was in March.

Since the overall market has cooled, the Patriots signing bonus offers have predictably as well. This is a tough period for remaining free agents. Since such players were unable to land lucrative deals out of the blocks, they must slice up the remaining pie, hoping there is still some left. The week after the draft will see a quick flurry of activity, but then the 32 teams will hold almost all of the bargaining power.

A player like Gadsden, who is coming off an injury-riddled season that forced him to miss 10 games, may be holding out hope that some team will not meet its need for a big wideout on draft weekend and then come calling. The Patriots, while certainly interested in the former Dolphin, will not overpay for him in a market that is drying up. If he remains a free agent come May, his best option might be a one-year veteran-qualifying offer of $750,000 that will allow him to prove he can be healthy and productive before testing the market again next winter.

After missing out on Woodard, Belichick is now 0-for-4 in luring restricted free agents to Foxborough, having signed Spencer Folau (2000), Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala (2001) and Mike Maslowski (2002) to offer sheets only to see them matched by the Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Kansas City, respectively.

There was speculation last week, fueled by agent Drew Rosenhaus, that the Patriots might turn their attention to Miami restricted free agent defensive lineman Jermaine Haley, but that remains unclear. Belichick obviously doesn't take the Daniel Snyder approach to restricted free agency in trying to sign the players with difficult-to-match offer sheets.

What is clear is that New England would love to add veteran defensive line help before also addressing that need with one of the top college prospects expected to be available with the 14th and 19th draft picks.

So despite obvious efforts, the Patriots, for now at least, remain in the market for veteran help on the offensive and defensive lines and at wide receiver. Belichick doesn't want to enter the 2003 season relying on untested rookies, even if they are high draft picks. So while the NFL Draft is the next offseason event that will offer fans a steady diet of hot stove talk, the Patriots will certainly be active on the player personnel front well beyond April 26-27.

Team Notes:
--The Patriots re-signed swing tackle Tom Ashworth, who was an exclusive rights free agent. The 6-6, 305-pounder was on the active roster last year, but appeared in just one game after spending all of 2001 on the practice squad. While Kenyatta Jones and Matt Light are the current starters at tackle, Ashworth will push Adrian Klemm and Matt Knutson for a roster spot this summer. The Patriots also lost center/guard Grey Ruegamer, who signed with the Packers. After failing to lure Andy McCollum into the fold, the Patriots are thin on experienced interior linemen. Mike Compton and Damien Woody can both play guard and center while Stephen Neal seems poised to battle for more playing time at guard and could, at the very least, be a top backup behind the injury-prone Joe Andruzzi.

--Dolphins fullback Ron Konrad criticized the Patriots front office on a Boston radio station recently, essentially saying the team lied to him by telling him he was its No. 1 choice at fullback before turning its attention to Richie Anderson. The Patriots responded by saying they never spoke to Konrad, which led Konrad's agent Drew Rosenhaus to call the Patriots a "reputable and respectable organization" in an obvious effort to smooth things over for his client. "Nobody likes to be lied to," Konrad said on WWZN in Boston. "I don't hold grudges. I already have a ton of incentive as it is. But it's very disappointing that people in the organization lied to me." Konrad later admitted that he never spoke directly to the Patriots, but through Rosenhaus, was led to believe the Patriots had strong interest.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "You always have some doubts. I guess I finally felt like I belonged last preseason. My first year, I was playing only at the end of games with all the 'slappies,' as Charlie Weis likes to call them. They're the guys that play in the fourth quarter of preseason games. Last year I was playing much earlier." -- Former world-class wrestler and offensive lineman Stephen Neal on when he felt like an NFL player rather than a wrestler playing in the NFL.

Team Skinny:
The Patriots coaches and scouts are preparing to hunker down for their marathon draft meetings where they will set the final board, but that doesn't mean they won't continue to peruse the free agent market looking for veterans to fill needs that will make the team less dependent on the younger unproven talent. In fact, the Patriots are likely to be active through June, which is when bargains can be had as unemployed veterans desperate for work sign what would have been a considered a below market deal back in March. The Patriots have been active players in the post-June 1 market in the previous three offseasons under Belichick.

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).

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; future in New England tied to expected trade of Tebucky Jones trade and options seem limited after up-and-down 2002 season); 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: OT Tom Ashworth (ERFA; $300,000/1 yr); 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); C/G Grey Ruegamer (UFA Packers; terms unknown).

MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.

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