Defense is Good, but Offense could be Scary
By Scout.com Staff
The Patriots had a consistently productive if not overly dominant offense in 2004, ranking fourth in the NFL in points per game. First-year New Englander Corey Dillon revitalized the rushing attack with a franchise record 1,635 yards on 345 carries with 12 touchdowns to combine with a diverse passing attack that had carried the unit in previous seasons.
So there weren't a lot of things that needed changing on the Tom Brady-led unit as the team prepares to challenge football history by seeking an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl title and fourth in five seasons. With the heart of the unit returning, including key cogs like Dillon, Brady, wide receiver David Givens and Super Bowl XXXIX MVP wide receiver Deion Branch, most of the changes in the unit this spring have been minor and deal more with the overall depth of the group as a whole.
Arguably the most movement heading into the new season could come on the offensive line. Starting left guard Joe Andruzzi, the veteran mainstay of the group since joining the team in 2000, departed via free agency to join former Patriots coaches Romeo Crennel and Jeff Davidson with the Cleveland Browns. With that need in mind New England selected a pair of relatively versatile offensive linemen on draft weekend, using the last pick in the first round on Fresno State's Logan Mankins and a third-round selection on Toledo's Nick Kaczur. The 6-4, 307-pound Mankins played left tackle for the Bulldogs, but is expected to compete for the open slot at left guard as a rookie. Kaczur could also compete for playing time alongside returning starters Matt Light, Dan Koppen, Stephen Neal and Tom Ashworth. Light, Koppen and Neal are virtual locks for starting jobs if healthy, Ashworth's hold on the right tackle spot is tenuous at best.
The other position that saw the most offseason movement was wide receiver where the team lost veteran David Patten to the Redskins in free agency, but added veterans Tim Dwight and former Chicago top-10 draft pick David Terrell. While Branch and fellow fourth-year receiver Givens likely have a stronghold on the top two receiver spots, the free agent newcomers will battle returning veteran Troy Brown, third-year speed burner Bethel Johnson and 2004 fifth-round pick P.K. Sam. A second-round pick in 2003, Johnson has yet to develop into a contributor on the offense and the newcomers could serve as a wakeup call for the talented athlete who's spent portions of his first two NFL seasons in Bill Belichick's doghouse.
The only addition New England made to the backfield, a group that consists of Dillon, returning third-down specialist Kevin Faulk and versatile fullback Patrick Pass, was the signing of free agent return specialist and occasional backfield contributor Chad Morton. While Morton will likely have to earn a roster spot in the return game, possible beating out Johnson, he has worked as a change of pace type back in his career. Faulk is still the first option, but Morton could add depth in a pinch.
New England didn't add to its talented tight end crop this offseason per se, but the return of ultra athletic 2004 top pick Benjamin Watson from a knee injury that cost him all but one game of his rookie season might make it seem that way. Watson showed incredible athleticism and play making ability in his limited action last preseason and in the season opener and he could combine with dominating blocker Daniel Graham and reliable veteran Christian Fauria to form one of the most productive tight end trios in football.
As Belichick has said on a number of occasions in recent years the spot on his team that he worries about least is the one held down by kicker Adam Vinatieri. The epitome of clutch in recent years, Vinatieri currently wears New England's franchise tag. The two sides have been trying to hammer out a long-term extension since last fall. Based on NFL rules the team now must wait until after July 15 to sign the kicker to a deal, but even if the sides can't reach an agreement before the season the two-time Pro Bowler who set a career-high in leading the NFL with 141 points in 2005 isn't going anywhere any time soon.
As scary as it may be for the rest of the NFL, the New England offense that has taken a backseat to the team's defense at times in recent seasons could soar to new heights in 2005. The one true hurdle the unit may face, and biggest change for the team overall, is dealing with the departure of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. Now the head coach at Notre Dame, Weis excelled in play calling and utilizing his various offensive weapons to form an unpredictable and game plan oriented attack. The team did not replace Weis on the staff and Belichick is expected to handle the play calling duties in 2005. It will be interesting if the future Hall of Fame head coach, who called plays for the Browns at times during his tenure in Cleveland, can orchestrate the offense with the success that Weis has had. If he can, the talent is in place around Brady to make for one of the most productive offenses in the game.
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