Patriots Off-season Needs, Part I

<p>The New England Patriots have begun to remake their roster for the 2005 season in an effort to remain in the top echelon of the NFL. Some teams make big splashes by signing free agents, the Patriots however, quietly address their needs with low profile free agents signings and contract extensions for their MVPs.</p><p>Patriots Insider takes a look at the champs off-season in this multi-part series.</p>

PHOTO: Indianapolis Colts WR Reggie Wayne and OG Rick DeMulling tackle New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi 9/9/2004 (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Patriots Off-season Needs, Part I
By Chris Goodhue, Site Contributor

In the salary cap-era, even dynasties have holes to fill. The Patriots brass have shown a penchant over the past 5 years for finding the right players to fit their system, as well as adapting to their players’ various talents and using them to confuse the opponent. If this off-season repeats history, Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli will find players that no one expected them to trade for like Duane Starks this year and Corey Dillon the last, as well as free agents on the scrapheap like Mike Vrabel and Joe Andruzzi in 2001. Rookies not highly coveted by other teams like David Givens in 2002 and Dan Koppen in 2003 will find their way onto the 53-man roster also. There are six major needs for the Patriots this off-season: Inside Linebacker, Wide Receiver, Offensive Guard, Outside Linebacker, Backup Quarterback, and Cornerback.

As it stands at this moment, no one is quite sure if ILB Tedy Bruschi will ever lace up the cleats again. Regardless if he does or does not play again, one could argue that the inside linebacker position is the team’s most pressing need, with depth at wide receiver coming in a close second. For theoretical purposes let’s take Bruschi out of the equation. That leaves veteran Ted Johnson and special teams standout Larry Izzo as the team’s only true inside backers with converted defensive tackle Dan Klecko in the mix as well. Johnson at this point in his career is an old-school type linebacker who will come up and challenge an offensive lineman to free up the other inside backer or a safety to make a play. Johnson is usually on the bench during passing situations, as he doesn’t really have the hands (1 career interception recorded in 1996) or mobility to cover tight ends and running backs. Izzo has never started a game at linebacker since entering the league in 1996, and at the age of 30, doesn’t figure to start now. Klecko at his size (5’11” 275 lbs.) would probably figure to have the same role as Johnson in a 3-4 scheme, if the coaching staff continues to try and develop him at linebacker. The need for a playmaking linebacker is fairly evident, and there are options on the free agency market who have even excelled in 3-4 schemes.

The first two names that come to mind are Baltimore’s Edgerton Hartwell and Pittsburgh’s Kendrell Bell, both of whom are unrestricted free agents and familiar to the 3-4 defense. Hartwell, 26 has amassed 335 tackles in the past three seasons in Baltimore alongside Ray Lewis, but was let go due to the Ravens desire to switch back to a 4-3 base defense. Bell, 26 had an injury plagued season as he played in only 3 games and was surpassed by Larry Foote on the depth chart. Hartwell will be in high demand for teams desperate for defense such as Kansas City, but perhaps Bell can be had for the right price after missing most of the past season. Colts free agent Rob Morris could be a possiblilty. Morris is an old 5-year veteran at age 30 but has been under the radar playing in a horrid Colts defense and has two 100-tackle seasons to his credit. He could be had for short money. Arizona MLB Ronald McKinnon is a 9-year veteran who posted 5 straight 100-tackle seasons between 1999 and 2003 but is also 31, and the Pats desperately need more youth in the linebacking corps. However if Bruschi cannot come back, they might need a solid veteran, and McKinnon could be one of those Rodney Harrison/Corey Dillon types who have played for perennial losers year in and year out, and would not command a high salary because he covets a ring.

With the departure of David Patten to the Redskins and the release of Troy Brown, the Patriots seemingly need depth at the wideout position. Deion Branch and David Givens have emerged as the clear number 1 and 2 receivers over the past two seasons, but questions remain as to whether or not Bethel Johnson can thrive in the slot as the third option. There is still an outside chance that Brown could return for a lower price than what he was making previously, but the Patriots may want to go in a more youthful direction. P.K. Sam remains from last year’s draft class, but he may be in Belichick’s doghouse, as he was the only player on the roster not invited to Jacksonville. After being shunned for Baltimore by Derrick Mason’s wife, the Patriots will look to a thin group of remaining receivers.

The best available receiver is Pittsburgh’s Plaxico Burress. A physical specimen at 6’5”, Burress is perceived by many to be a selfish player and openly complained about not getting enough touches in the Steelers’ ball-control offense. Regardless, he will command a lot of attention on the open market do to his physical assets, and will be too expensive for the Patriots. Buccaneers WR Joey Galloway is an oft-injured speedster who has never lived up to the hype surrounding him. He hasn’t posted a 1,000 yard season since 1998 and has had more than 70 catches just once. Lions WR Tai Streets is an intriguing player. He had a couple of good years starting alongside Terrell Owens in San Francisco, catching 12 touchdowns in 2 years as a starter, then signed with Detroit to play for ex-49ers coach Steve Mariucci. Unfortunately, Lions QB Joey Harrington was maddeningly inconsistent, and Streets’ stock has appeared to drop after a 28-catch 2004. He’s still only 27 and is 6’2” and could be nice red zone target for Brady. After these players, there is a drop in talent to mediocre guys such as Houston’s Corey Bradford, Tampa Bay’s Joe Jurevicius, Baltimore’s Travis Taylor and Kevin Johnson, and the 49ers Cedrick Wilson. If history plays true, the Pats will find a player in the draft as none of their receivers were very high picks. Deion Branch and Bethel Johnson were both 2nd rounders, David Givens a 7th rounder, and Troy Brown was selected in the 8th round which no longer exists.

Part 1 :: Part 2 :: Part 3

Chris Goodhue has been a leading fantasy football and baseball expert since 1999. He can usually be found at a local Boston area sports bar settling arguments of sports history, but in case you can't find him out there, send your questions and feedback to cgoodhue in the Insider Forums.

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