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Patriots Off-season Needs, Part II

<p>The New England Patriots continue to take a look at players whom may fit into their system. The team is constantly looking to improve by upgrading key positions, and has undergone a youth movement as of late. Patriots Insider takes a look at the champs off-season needs in Part 2 of this three-part series. </p><p>Not an Insider? <A HREF="https://secure.scout.com/store/view.aspx?s=121&p=6">Get the FREE TRIAL</A></p>

PHOTO: New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, celebrates his touchdown pass to tight end Daniel Graham, with offensive lineman Stephen Neal (61).

Patriots Off-season Needs, Part 2
By Chris Goodhue, Site Contributor

Offensive Line

Joe Andruzzi

Now that Joe Andruzzi is part of the Cleveland Browns: Version 2.0, the Patriots have an open slot at starting guard. The remaining guards on the squad certainly lack experience. Former college wrestler Stephen Neal stepped in nicely this year for the departed Damien Woody and started 14 games, which was 13 more than his previous career high. Belichick is very high on Neal and it appears he will be a starter heading into 2005.

Russ Hochstein was part of the 2003 Pats playoff run in which the offensive line did not give up a sack, but in his career outside the postseason, he has only 3 career starts in 4 seasons. He is an unrestricted free agent, but much like the departed Andruzzi, he was a career journeyman before landing in New England that may have found a niche in this offensive system. He has shown he is versatile, as he lined up as a lead blocker for Corey Dillon in goal line situations while Richard Seymour was injured. He could come back for a low-risk price and do fine.

The remaining guards on the roster are two young relative unknowns; Billy Yates, and Gene Mruckrowski, both who will be third-year players without a career start between them.

 

Rick DeMulling

The best free agent option still available is the Colts Rick DeMulling. DeMulling has started 41 games in the past 3 seasons protecting Peyton Manning in one of the league’s most efficient units. The Colts offensive line gave up an AFC-low 14 sacks in 2004. He is only 27 and at 6’4”, 304 lbs., will certainly get paid a healthy sum by a team desperate for protection. He is sure to be too expensive for Foxboro.

Former Broncos All-Pro Dan Neil is also available. What Neil lacks in size (6’2”, 285 lbs.) he makes up for with experience. He has started 104 games since 1998 and has been a part of the most consistent rushing offense in recent memory. He’s helped pave the way for 1,000-yard rushers Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis, and most recently Reuben Droughns. He could bring stability and knowledge to the young Pats o-line.

Former Baltimore mammoth guard Bennie Anderson is out among the ranks as well. He was made expendable by the Ravens as they search for someone more agile. The 6’5” 345 lb. monster is a good run blocker, but is run of the mill when it comes to protecting the QB. Falcons guard Roberto Garza is 25 years old and unrestricted, but some scouts say larger defensive tackles can overpower him. Not a good fit in a division that includes Dewayne Robertson and Sam Adams.

The 49ers have two young guards who are restricted free agents in Eric Heitmann and Kyle Kosier. They have 65 starts between them and each would cost only a 7th round pick in return. Some garden-variety options on the open market include former Viking David Dixon who is an 11-year vet, Rich Tylski, a former Patriot who couldn’t make it through training camp with out retiring, and former Ram starter Tom Nutten.

Linebackers

Will Witherspoon

When the Patriots released OLB Roman Phifer, it signaled that this is another area in which the team desperately needs a youth infusion. Willie McGinest has had an amazing resurgence the last few seasons, but is also 33 years old and you have to wonder how much longer he can continue to rush the passer at a high level. Mike Vrabel is solid on the other side and is still only 29 years old, so one would think he has at the very least 3 seasons left at a high level.

2003 free agent pickup Rosevelt Colvin played well for someone who nearly suffered a career ending hip injury and may be better next season after an entire season of recovery has passed him by, but he could also be another hit away from retirement. Second year-man Tully Banta-Cain has shown good ability to get to the ball carrier and pressure the QB in limited action and special teams play.

The two best names on the outside still available are Carolina’s Will Witherspoon and the Jaguars’ Akin Ayodele. Strangely, both Witherspoon and Ayodele have recorded 273 tackles the past 3 seasons and are restricted free agents whose departure will cost any team that signs them a first round pick in April’s draft.

Former Colts OLB David Thornton is available on the open market, but at 6’2”, 230 lbs., most scouts feel he is undersized for the position, even though he has put up solid numbers. Thornton has made 237 tackles in two seasons as the Colts’ weak side OLB.

One player who is extremely overlooked is the Chiefs’ Scott Fujita. Fujita has 204 tackles and 8.5 sacks in the last two seasons and is a restricted free agent. But…(and this is a huge but) the Chiefs lowballed him with the low-level tender offer for RFA’s meaning that any team that surpasses their offer would only have to give up a 5th round pick in return. He’s a big guy at 6’5” 250 lbs., is only 25 years old, and is very good in coverage. He could be an absolute steal and would seem to fit in nicely with the Pats 3-4 scheme.

Other decent outside backers still available are Atlanta’s undersized Matt Stewart (6’3, 232 lbs.), and the Rams Tommy Polley (6’3”, 218!!), former Panther Mark Fields, and Philadelphia’s Ike Reese.

The Off-season analysis if a multi-part series which can be found on Patriots Insider in the archives or via the quick links here:

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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