So while his free
agent signings have focused on slowing down opposing passing attacks with the
addition of pass rushing linebacker Rosevelt Colvin and defensive backs Tyrone
Poole and Rodney Harrison, Belichick also is looking for linemen. So far he has
come up empty.
The Patriots had a scheduled visit with veteran free
agent defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina canceled when the former Ram inked a deal
with the division rival Miami Dolphins. Earlier in the offseason, they lost out
on Titans free agent John Thornton, who took the money to sign with Cincinnati.
They also have been unable to secure an agreement with another former Ram,
center/guard Andy McCollum. Both lines remain in need of reinforcements and the
free agent talent pool is starting to dwindle.
But the Patriots
certainly are not done signing free agents. Since Belichick arrived in 2000, the
club has been active in the market through June, July and even into August and
September. Current starters Roman Phifer (Aug. 3, 2001), Bobby Hamilton (July
16, 2000), Otis Smith (Aug. 23, 2000), Joe Andruzzi (Sept. 9, 2000) and Antowain
Smith (June 7, 2001) all signed with team in what is often termed the post-June
1 market. In his first three years as head coach, Belichick has signed 14 free
agents after the draft.
"If you're going to be a contender, you'd better
be pro-active in free agency," Super Bowl winning Head Coach Jon Gruden said to
assembled media at the Scouting Combine in February, "and not necessarily out of
the block. We picked up Keenan McCardell and Roman Oben in June."
of those players started all season for Tampa and helped the team win its first
World Championship just as all of the aforementioned Patriots late signings were
instrumental parts of the 2001 Super Bowl-winning team.
will likely choose between the Patriots and Rams, is close to making his choice
after taking some free agent visits. He still has some leverage as an
experienced starter, but would almost certainly lose some of that after teams
address their needs in the upcoming NFL Draft. However, the first week after the
draft can be another hot time for free agents because teams that were unable to
address needs in the draft may be desperate to scoop up any remaining talent.
New England could certainly use McCollum on an offensive line that
entered the 2002 season expecting to be a strength of the team, but ended up a
weakness. The problems started in training camp when 2001 starting right tackle
Greg Randall lost his job to the inexperienced Kenyatta Jones, who struggled,
while guard Joe Andruzzi and center Damien Woody battled ailments for parts or
most of the season.
The Patriots were barely able to put their Super
Bowl starting line on the field together for any extended stretch and the depth
wasn't talented enough to keep the line play at a high level. Back-to-back
training camp retirements by Joe Panos (2001) and Rich Tylski (2002) didn't help
matters. Those signings do indicate; however, Belichick's desire to acquire
experienced depth for his front five rather than rely on the bodies currently
residing on the bench.
If nothing else, McCollum would provide insurance
for Andruzzi, who while tough, has been hurt in each of his three years with the
Patriots. He also could be insurance in case the team is unable to re-sign
center Damien Woody following the 2003 season when the current three-year
starter is scheduled to hit free agency.
With the 14th and 19th picks in
the draft, the Patriots can reasonably expect to land one of the defensive
linemen in this year's deep class, but they also will continue looking for
experienced help to rotate into the lineup. Anthony Pleasant, Bobby Hamilton,
Rick Lyle, Jarvis Green and Richard Seymour are the only experienced pure
defensive linemen on the roster. Even if a rookie first rounder is added to that
mix, the Patriots might be in some trouble if any of those players gets hurt,
which at least one inevitably will. Also, the talent level of that group is
average at best.
Lyle is coming off a year where he battled injuries and
was barely noticeable, and the aging Pleasant didn't show up nearly as much as
he did in 2001. Hamilton, at 280 pounds, wears down when asked to play too much
as he may have been last season when injuries and an overall lack of talent
limited the defensive line rotation. Green should be improved in his second year
and Seymour may start to dominate in his third year. But that group still needs
There are no top-level linemen still looking for work, but plenty
of capable bodies remain. With the big money contracts likely done, it may be
the Patriots time to shine. Finding starters in late-April, May and June usually
means finding value because the prices tend to be lower and if the player signs
a one-year deal, he plays with something to prove.
New England will not
survive if it enters the season with virtually the same line groups with which
it finished 2002. Expect help in the draft and watch the free agent wire all the
way up to and through training camp.
--The Patriots will open and close the season against the
much-improved Buffalo Bills and former quarterback Drew Bledsoe, traveling to
Buffalo in Week One and closing out with a Saturday afternoon game on Dec. 27
against the Bills at Gillette Stadium. They also will open with two road games
for the third time in franchise history. The last time the Patriots opened with
two road games was 1996 -- they lost both but went on to capture the AFC
The home opener is Week Three against the rival Jets. They
will also play one Monday night game at Denver on Nov. 3 and will host former
Patriots coach Bill Parcells' Dallas Cowboys in a Sunday night match-up on Nov.
16. In fact, this year will be the ninth straight season the Patriots play
Denver -- an unusual scenario for a non-division opponent. New England is 2-6 in
the last eight games against Denver.
The last two games of the season --
at the Jets and home against Buffalo -- are both nationally televised Saturday
games. The Patriots have the eighth toughest schedule in the NFL based on the
2002 finish of its opponents (.527). While New England will travel three out of
the first four weeks, it will be home for three of the last four including two
December match-ups against warm weather clubs Miami and Jacksonville. It's trip
to Miami will be in October for the third straight year and the Patriots have
wilted in the heat the last two, getting blown out by a combined 56-23 score.
The bye week is Week 10, which is helpful since it comes following a Monday
night game and precedes the date with Parcells' Cowboys.
Belichick and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis were in South Florida the first
week of April to work out injured University of Miami running back Willis
McGahee. The former Hurricane star is reportedly way ahead of schedule on his
rehab from a severe knee injury suffered in the National Championship game loss
to Ohio State. There is now speculation that McGahee, who would have been a top
five pick before the injury, might be able to play some in 2003, although there
are several teams that might be willing to use a high pick on him and allow him
to continue rehab and strength work through the 2003 season before giving him
his full-blown chance in 2004.
The Patriots are a team that may consider
doing that, although it would be difficult to imagine them using one of their
two first rounders on McGahee. However, if the Patriots trade Tebucky Jones for
an extra second or third round pick, they might consider taking McGahee in one
of those rounds, although it would not be shocking to see the Raiders use one of
their two firsts on the injured runner since all of their backs are over 30 and
they could certainly wait a year before giving him the opportunity to beat out
--The Patriots reportedly have a visit scheduled with
University of Tennessee wide receiver Kelley Washington, who will be either a
first or second round draft choice. Washington is a 6-2 1/2, 215-pound wideout
who would provide the Patriots the big receiver they lack. He also is coming off
surgery on his C5 and C6 vertebrae, but apparently checked out OK at the
Combine. Cincinnati defensive end Antwan Peek, Notre Dame center Jeff Faine and
Minnesota cornerback Mike Lehan also have visited Foxborough. NFL teams are
allowed to bring in 20 prospects for a visit from outside their metro area.
There is no limit on the amount of local prospects that can be brought in for
visits nor is there a limit on how many players a team can meet with if it
travels to the player.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm playing along the whole front
anyway. So where I end up is fine with me. I'm just ready to get back out there
and start making plays again. If I'm at nose tackle or at end, it's fine with
me." -- Defensive lineman Richard Seymour on the possibility of being moved
Patriots signed an offer sheet with Seattle restricted free-agent defensive
tackle Cedric Woodard. The Seahawks have until April to decide whether to match.
If they don't, New England will send a sixth-round draft pick to Seattle.
NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES: DL, WR, CB. Since the Patriots have addressed
their pass rushing need with the Rosevelt Colvin signing, they must turn their
draft focus to big defensive linemen who can stuff the run, whether that is from
the inside or the end. Whether the guy plays inside or out may not matter much
in Belichick's two-gap scheme where linemen are head up on an offensive lineman
as opposed to in the gaps trying to penetrate. Richard Seymour is the player the
Patriots are building around, but they also like second-year pro Jarvis Green,
who gained some experience as a rookie fourth-round pick last year. Bobby
Hamilton is an effective player when his reps are managed well, which makes
finding versatile linemen a bigger need so that a strong rotation can be used.
Anthony Pleasant probably will see his role reduced to a situational one, which
could help his overall effectiveness. Colvin will likely be used down the edge
on third down, which will help some of the other rushers. If New England can
land an inside lineman with the skill to collapse the pocket, the Colvin signing
will be even more valuable. The Patriots will use one of their first round picks
to address this position.
It's been all defense for New England so far
and while the offensive line could use another capable body given the
instability at right tackle and guard Joe Andruzzi's injury history, a big wide
receiver remains a big need. The Pats are essentially three deep at receiver
with Troy Brown, David Patten and Deion Branch, but they lack a receiver with
size and speed who can make plays on the ball over defenders, especially in the
red zone. They obviously feel it's a need after their failed Donald Hayes
experiment. So look for New England to tap the wide receiver market before all
is said and done. Brown is heading into his 11th season and will need to be
replaced soon. If the Patriots don't deem this an immediate pressing need, this
could be a position to watch in the draft where a player would get the time to
develop. If not, watch the free agent wire, especially in April when the
restricted free agent deadline approaches and the team could make an offer after
some of the available money has dried up.
Cornerback is back on the list
since the Colvin signing. Despite the addition of Tyrone Poole, New England
still has to infuse some young talent here. Ty Law has an outrageous cap number
and while he not in danger of losing is job because of it now, the Patriots have
to look down the road and Law could be getting too pricey. Combine his
escalating salaries with Otis Smith's age -- he will be 38 in October -- and New
England needs top-level players at this position. Poole is a solid nickel corner
and probably an adequate No. 2 guy, but he is not a long-term answer for the
Pats. If New England could find a way to draft one of the top two corners and
still land a defensive lineman, it would make this one of the best offseasons in
FRANCHISE PLAYER: S Tebucky Jones (tendered at $3.043
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: S
Chris Hayes (the re-signing of Je'Rod Cherry and the signing of Chris Akins have
likely ended his stint with the Pats); DL Bernard Holsey (will only be brought
back to compete if the team lacks bodies heading into training camp); S Rob
Kelly (after year in IR and another out of football, Kelly's career could be
over); C/G Grey Ruegamer (with the Patriots bringing Rams free agent Andy
McCollum in for a visit, it appears they are moving on from Ruegamer, who is not
as good as McCollum, but would fill the same role on the roster).
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers): WR Fred Coleman (not
tendered as ERFA).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: LB Matt Chatham (tendered at
$605,000 with no compensation; a solid special teamer with limited defensive
experience who may have a hard time making the club this summer); S Victor Green
(has individually negotiated right of first refusal; has some feelers from other
clubs' the Rodney Harrison signing could be bad news for Green's chances to
return to New England); FB Patrick Pass (tendered at $605,000 with 7th-round
pick as compensation; a serviceable special teamer with backup ability as a
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: OL Matt Knutson
(tendered at $225,000); OG Stephen Neal (tendered at $375,000; former world
class wrestler will battle for a starting job this year).
RE-SIGNED: TE Fred Baxter (UFA; $780,000/1 yr, $25,000 SB; terms unknown); S
Je'Rod Cherry (UFA; $680,000/1 yr, $25,000 SB/$100,000 base guarantee; 2003 cap:
$475,000); CB Ben Kelly (RFA; $605,000/1 yr); DE Rick Lyle (UFA; $680,000/1 yr,
$25,000 SB; 2003 cap: $475,000); LS Lonie Paxton (RFA; $3.075M/5 yrs, $305,000
SB; 2003 cap: $517,000); LB Maugaula Tuitele (ERFA; $300,000/1 yr).
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: S Chris Akins (UFA Browns; $555,000/1 yr, $25,000 SB;
2003 cap: $475,000); LB Rosevelt Colvin (UFA Bears; $25.9M/6 yrs, $6M SB; 2003
cap: $1.56M); S Rodney Harrison (FA Chargers; $14.49M/6 yrs, $2.5M SB; 2003 cap:
$1.08M); FB Fred McCrary (FA Chargers; 2 yrs, terms unknown); CB Tyrone Poole
(UFA Broncos; $8M/4 yrs, $1.8M SB; 2003 cap: $1.1M).
PLAYERS LOST: CB
Terrell Buckley (UFA Dolphins; $755,000/1 yr); TE Cam Cleeland (UFA Rams;
$555,000/1 yr, $25,000 SB); FB Marc Edwards (UFA Jaguars; $3M/3 yrs, $875,000
SB); WR Donald Hayes (cut); OT Greg Randall (Trade Texans).
WATCH: No updates.