Team Report: Patriots

Offensive lineman Brendan Stai's visit with Patriots officials last week is not a good sign. In fact, while coach Bill Belichick spoke about how he and his staff spent the offseason trying to improve the team, the offensive line is no better than it was a year ago and may even be worse.

"We put in a lot of hours, time, effort, energy and thought as to we could improve the football team," he said, expressing his excitement that camp was starting, "and now is really our first opportunity to get on the field in full pads and have full contact and start to see those things manifest themselves."

None of those improvements, however, involved the offensive line. Two of last year's starters, right guard Joe Andruzzi and right tackle Kenyatta Jones, are still recovering from offseason knee surgeries. The club lost guard Stephen Neal, who would have worked in Andruzzi's place, for several months when he underwent his second shoulder surgery in a year two weeks ago. And while he was nothing more than a fill-in guard/center, Grey Ruegamer left to sign with Green Bay.

The Patriots tried unsuccessfully to sign Andy McCollum away from St. Louis and then added Buffalo reserve center Bill Conaty just before camp after learning of Neal's predicament.

So as camp opened, Damien Woody was still at center, Mike Compton was still at left guard and Matt Light was still at left tackle. But a practice squad player from a year ago, Russ Hochstein, was working with the first unit at right guard and backup Adrian Klemm was at right tackle.

The Patriots actually activated Hochstein late last season to make sure they held his rights heading into 2003, which means they saw something in the prospect. But with him, rookie Dan Koppen and Conaty, the Patriots have at least three interior linemen who could hold the fort until Andruzzi returns. Or maybe they have none, which is why Stai was in town visiting with Patriots officials.

Hochstein and Koppen are unproven players at best and Conaty is a backup who spent his time in Buffalo at center. But he wasn't re-signed by the Bills despite the team's less-than-stellar performance up front last year, which is probably an indication of his skill level.

One assumes Stai, 31, would be an upgrade over that group, but he is another player who has been unable to hold a job, having played in Washington, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville and Detroit in the least few seasons. He, too, is coming off knee surgery.

His visit also could indicate the club's uneasiness with Andruzzi's recovery from microfracture surgery. But it is never a good sign when the team is shopping for a veteran guard two days into training camp after watching a couple of days of practice tape.

Then there is Klemm, who was injured for almost all of his first two years in the league and was a backup last year. His presence at right tackle is not a sign that he finally developed into the player New England thought it was getting when it spent a 2000 second round pick on him.

Watching him get bull-rushed into the quarterback during some pass protection drills last week provided further proof that he is not the answer at right tackle. But Jones may not be the long-term answer either.

The bottom line is that the Patriots are not comfortable with their current group of linemen be it because of injuries or the talent level. But this is Belichick's fourth training camp in New England and his offensive line is still not settled. Perhaps Stai would change that. But that's doubtful.

CAMP CALENDAR: Training camp closes Aug. 13.

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