Slowly but surely Bill Belichick has worked to make his defense younger and quicker while maintaining success. He took another step in that direction last week when he released 35-year-old veteran defensive tackle Keith Traylor.
Traylor, 6-2, 340 pounds, started 10 regular season games and two of three playoff games for New England last season and recorded 33 regular season tackles and two playoff stops while tutoring rookie Vince Wilfork inside.
But heading into training camp, the defensive line is the Patriots' deepest position. With second-year man Marquise Hill looking for playing time, Rodney Bailey returning from injured reserve and nose tackle Ethan Kelley looking to prove he belongs, the Patriots already have some new faces trying to earn time along with regulars Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Jarvis Green and Wilfork.
Wilfork started six games on the nose in the Patriots' 3-4 base defense in 2004 and was outperforming Traylor by season's end. The rookie out of Miami finished the season with 57 tackles and two sacks while adjusting to the Pats two-gap system.
Wilfork figured to pass Traylor on the depth chart for 2005 anyway, but Traylor's release opens the door for Kelley to make his mark. The 2003 seventh round draft pick out of Baylor spent his rookie season on the practice squad and was inactive for 15 of 16 games last season while occupying a spot on the 53-man roster. He played in the season finale against the 49ers and had one tackle. This will be a big summer for the third year lineman.
By releasing the 13-year veteran, the Patriots saved almost $800,000 against the 2005 salary cap. Traylor would have counted just more than $1 million against the cap, but will now cost the Pats about $238,000 in dead money.
Traylor fell victim to Father Time with the team electing to go with younger players up front. It also couldn't have helped Traylor's cause that he was not a participant in the Pats voluntary offseason program and the team is unable to monitor his conditioning.
During preparation for Super Bowl XXXIX, Traylor spoke about possibly retiring after the game, but backtracked in the wake of the championship and spoke about enjoying his season in New England and his hopes for returning to play the last year of his contract. Now he will look to hook on elsewhere, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him land in Cleveland where he would help tutor Romeo Crennel's 3-4 defense in Cleveland.
-- Doug Flutie's legend is biggest in New England. The Natick, Mass., native won a Heisman Trophy at Boston College and has been a local hero ever since even though he has never truly excelled in the NFL beyond a couple relatively short, successful stints. But when Flutie signed with New England, he did so knowing that there was no way he would compete for a starting job. Another local hero, Tom Brady, has that position pretty well secured after three Super Bowl titles.
Flutie, 42, might just be the perfect relief man if Brady were to go down short term as he did back in the 2001 AFC Championship Game when Drew Bledsoe capably replaced him. Flutie acknowledged that the relief role might be the one for which he is best suited at this point in his career.
"I think, although I've had success as a starter at times, I really believe that my best role is coming off the bench. I really have had success in games where I've come off the bench to relieve a guy that's either struggled or got banged up. It's a good change of pace for the other team, especially without the opportunity to game plan. I look forward to that role."
In New England, though, Flutie will not get an opportunity to replace a struggling quarterback. Not that Brady is incapable of struggling, but he has earned immunity from being benched in such situations. The only way Flutie will get on the field for the Pats is if he surpasses Rohan Davey as the No. 2 quarterback and Brady gets injured.
-- The Patriots' offensive line is adjusting to life without its leader. Joe Andruzzi was that guy both on and off the field. He organized off-field get togethers that brought that group closer.
"Those won't stop by any means," center Dan Koppen said. "We just have to designate whose house to go to and who's buying all the food."
He nominated left tackle Matt Light, who recently signed a lucrative contract extension, for the food-buying role, although it could fall to first round pick Logan Mankins, who will get a hefty signing bonus.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
New England appears to be finished adding to its linebacker stable. With Tedy Bruschi's future still uncertain, the Patriots have closely examined every available option. They signed Chiefs linebacker Monty Beisel and Giants linebacker Wesly Mallard and drafted Ryan Claridge in the fifth round. None of the three figures to step in and replace Bruschi's production in 2005, but the Patriots are trying to create competition at the spot.
They agreed to terms with former Seahawk and Steeler linebacker Chad Brown, who was deciding between Pittsburgh, Denver, New Orleans and New England. Brown, 34, has experience in the 3-4 and should provide a short-term fix by playing inside for the Patriots.
New England also has reportedly looked into former Seahawk Anthony Simmons, but has made no move to sign him. Simmons, who has had numerous issues in Seattle, may have the physical ability to play for the Super Bowl champions, but his character issues might cause them to hold off.
The team has not contacted the agent for recently released veteran Kevin Hardy, but any move to sign the former Bengal could happen quickly if New England went that route. Two years ago, the Patriots pulled Rodney Harrison out of Oakland, and he signed before he left Foxborough that night after flying out on a red eye. Hardy is a veteran leader who would fit well in New England, but the Patriots would have to feel comfortable that he could play inside in the team's 3-4 base defense. At 6-4, 259, he certainly carries the weight and stature to play inside and his nine years of experience would probably allow for a relatively smooth transition.
Warrick Holdman, formerly of the Bears and the Browns, is another name that continues to surface in discussions on possible candidates to join the team. Holdman, was a free agent acquisition by the Browns in 2004 and started 14 games for Cleveland. Holdman has none of the baggage Simmons carries, and would prove a solid addition to the roster in a reserve role.
--PK Adam Vinatieri (signed tender of $2.51M).
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
--RB Rabih Abdullah is a special teamer and reserve running back with the size and physical stature the Patriots like. He could get a training camp invite because New England doesn't have much depth at the position. Cedric Cobbs' potential and Kory Chapman's play in Europe could impact Abdullah's status especially with young players like safety Guss Scott and Benjamin Watson returning from injury and expected to play on special teams. Signing him is not an immediate priority.
--WR Troy Brown carried a cap number of $5.7 million into 2005 with $5 million in new money so after trying to negotiate those numbers down, the Patriots declined to pick up a team option that would have required a $2.5 million March 2 bonus payment. Brown was looking for No. 2 receiver money for three years and the Pats were apparently offering No. 3 receiver type dollars. The two sides are likely to continue negotiations, and Brown could be back in the mix.
--S Je'Rod Cherry is a special teamer who won't likely be re-signed. With Scott returning from a knee injury, Cherry, who once again performed well in the kicking game, is expendable and is the type of player New England would look to sign during the season as an injury replacement if he were available.
--WR Kevin Kasper won't likely be re-signed unless the Patriots become thin at wide receiver over the next two months. Then, if Kasper is still available, he could be signed in May or June to compete for a job in camp.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE
--OL Gene Mruczkowski (tendered at $305,000) has been with the team in some capacity - either the practice squad or the active roster -- for a couple of seasons and seems to be progressing. He will be tendered and brought to camp to battle for a job. His ability to play guard and center helps his chances since the Patriots have no true backup center on the roster.
--OT Tom Ashworth: RFA; $1.43M/1 yr.
--LB Don Davis: UFA; $665,000/1yr, bonus unknown.
--WR David Givens: RFA; $1.43M/1 yr.
--OT Brandon Gorin: Potential RFA; $2.3M/3 yrs, $400,000 SB.
--DL Jarvis Green: RFA; $1.43M/1 yr.
--DT Ethan Kelley: ERFA; $305,000/1 yr.
--OG Stephen Neal: RFA; $1.43M/1 yr.
--FB Patrick Pass: UFA; $1.36M/2 yrs, $150,000 SB; 2005 cap: $615,000.
--CB Hank Poteat: FA, had been released by Patriots; $540,000/1yr, bonus unknown.
--S Guss Scott: ERFA; $305,000/1 yr.
--PK Adam Vinatieri: Franchise FA: $2.51M/1 yr.
--TE Jed Weaver: FA, had been released by Patriots; $540,000/1yr, bonus unknown.
--LB Chad Brown: UFA Seahawks; terms unknown
--LB Monty Beisel: UFA Chiefs; $1.65M/2 yrs, $400,000 SB; 2005 cap: $750,000.
--WR/KR Tim Dwight: FA Chargers; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--QB Doug Flutie: FA Chargers; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--WLB/SS Wes Mallard: Not tendered as RFA by Giants; terms unknown.
--CB Chad Scott: FA Steelers; terms unknown.
--CB Duane Starks (trade Cardinals).
--WR David Terrell: FA Bears; $900,000/1 yr, $200,000 SB.
--OG Joe Andruzzi: UFA Browns; $9M/4 yrs, SB unknown.
--TE Zeron Flemister (released).
--OT Adrian Klemm: UFA Packers; $2.6M/2 yrs, $800,000 SB/$200,000 RB '06.
--CB Ty Law (released).
--QB Jim Miller: UFA Giants; $790,000/1 yr, $25,000 SB.
--CB Earthwind Moreland (released).
--WR David Patten: UFA Redskins; $13M/5 yrs, $3.5M SB.
--LB Roman Phifer (released/failed physical).
--DT Keith Traylor (released).
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