Patriots News: Running Back Top Draft Priority

With the release of running back Antowain Smith and two first round draft picks, New England is poised to secure a top flight running back.

The Patriots obvious need come draft weekend is running back, at least that's their biggest need as free agency gets ready to commence, but once again there is a prevailing thought that New England was in Indy over most of the past week looking for a big, go-to wide receiver to add to their offensive arsenal as well.

Patriots scout Jim Nagy, who covers the Midwest region for the Patriots, confirmed New England's interest in a recent story published in the Traverse City Record-Eagle in Northern Michigan.

"We have four wide receivers we're comfortable with, but there is a need to add a true No. 1," Nagy told that paper. "We do not have a Terrell Owens, a Randy Moss, that type of game-breaker."

While securing that type of bigger, game-breaking receiver might be a nice luxury, it hardly has to be considered a pressing need on a team without a running back and with a defense that still needs an influx of youth.

It would seem to fall even further down the priority list when one considers that the team won two Super Bowls in three years with its tallest wide receiver, David Givens, measuring in at 6-0 with cleats on and without that so-called game-breaker on the roster.

In fact, in 2001, the Patriots won throwing almost exclusive to small receivers Troy Brown and David Patten. This past season, Givens and 5-9 Deion Branch emerged while 5-11 rookie Bethel Johnson and 5-9 Dedric Ward played mostly complementary roles.

New England's lone attempt to secure size failed miserably when they signed flop Donald Hayes in 2002. His size was rendered moot when he failed to grasp the offense and showed a lack of confidence and instincts while catching only a dozen passes. They're better off with 5-9 players who can run routes, catch and make plays.

The Patriots are more than pleased with the production they received from their wide receiving corps in 2003. Its depth accounts for the lack of a big, go-to, Owens- or Moss-type of receiver and allows quarterback Tom Brady to spread the ball around with confidence, enabling him to decipher the coverage and throw to its weak spot regardless of which player might be on the receiving end.

In the last two Drafts, New England spent a second round pick on a wide receiver - Branch in 2002 and Johnson in 2003. While Johnson is a burner who still needs refinement, those two, along with 2002 seventh-round pick Givens, are the young nucleus of the Patriots receiving corps moving forward, as Brown and Patten, who will be both be 30 or older when the 2004 season starts, head toward the end of their careers.

In fact, both veteran receivers are facing salary issues as the March 3 start of the 2004 league year approaches. Brown's salary cap number jumps to $4.6 million this year, and while he caught 83, 101 and 97 passes in 2000, 2001 and 2002, respectively, he caught just 40 last season in 12 games in what is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. But observers also know that New England probably doesn't win Super Bowl XXXVIII without Brown's clutch contributions.

His play exceeded his modest salary for so long that he is likely to play hardball if the Patriots look to him for a salary reduction and it would be hard to blame him. Patten, conversely, missed most of last season with a knee injury and watched Branch and Givens emerge in his absence. His 2004 cap number is $1.2 million, which could be too high for a guy that will fight for playing time next year if he is still a Patriot.

So perhaps the Patriots fill some of their needs in free agency before the April 24 Draft, and if they do, then a selecting a wide receiver might be a more reasonable move, but to do so with other pressing needs would be a surprise.

The Patriots will continue working to re-sign Ted Washington and Kevin Faulk, both of whom have expressed a desire to remain with the Patriots. Faulk doesn't figure to break the bank as a third down back in free agency, but could want to test his worth, while the Patriots maybe seek a better version of Faulk such as the Raiders Charlie Garner, who is expected to void his Raiders contract.

Faulk is certainly a nice fit in the Patriots system, however, and provides a solid change of pace along with wideout quality receiving skills in his 5-9 frame. Defensive lineman Bobby Hamilton has a chance to return but is not a priority. With Damien Woody likely gone, Mike Compton could be of value even if only as a veteran backup because he has played center, guard and tackle in his career, spending time at the first two in his three-year stint in New England. He is recovering from a bad break in his foot.

Since the Patriots have no experienced running back under contract, that remains their biggest draft need until any possible free agent maneuver changes that. They will likely have to trade up to get one of the top two runners, but those two - Kevin Jones and Steven Jackson - may be the only two bona fide first rounders. New England also needs to add secondary depth at either safety, cornerback or both along with finding a young inside linebacker and a nose tackle in the event it can't re-sign Ted Washington. A guard to replace Woody has to be considered a priority as well.

Only one player, safety Rodney Harrison, is known to have had surgery after the season, and his was to repair the broken arm he suffered in the Super Bowl. He is expected to fully recover for the start of training camp. Rosevelt Colvin's return from a fractured hip is something to watch closely. He plans on being ready for camp, but the recovery for his injury is unpredictable given his profession and the demands on his body.

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