Insider Skinny: Patriots Could Select Corner

Insider Skinny: Patriots Could Select Corner

As the only team with two first round picks and one of four with two second round picks, the Patriots have some wiggle room on draft weekend to land a couple of players they truly covet or stock the shelves with four of the top 63 prospects.

If history is any indicator, Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli will take the former approach and maneuver around to land two and possibly three players they have targeted in the first two rounds. Being the only team with two first round picks should help them move up if that is their wish because it will limit bidders and perhaps even lower the price as compared to past years.

Last year the Patriots were one of four teams with two first round picks, which left teams wanting to move up in bidding wars for those high slots. For example, there was a rumor last year that New England was attempting to trade with Detroit for the second pick so it could take defensive lineman Dewayne Robertson. But the Patriots didn't make the move and watched the antsy Jets trade their two first rounders along with a fourth rounder for the Bears' fourth overall pick, which they used to take Robertson.

Did New England want to move up? Belichick said no, but having the rumor out there didn't hurt especially if a rival dealt away valuable slots to trump the Patriots and land a player New England didn't really want in the first place. It also helped the teams in the top five command a higher price because of other offers. It's all part of draft strategy, but the landscape differs greatly this year.

"It's a big difference," Belichick said. "A lot of the teams ahead of us have talked to us about (a trade) and of course we have two picks in the second round as well. A lot of teams have talked to us about moving back for multiple picks. Those will all be draft day decisions."

The shoe is essentially on the other foot this year. Any team wanting to move out of the top of the draft will call New England since the Patriots are the only team with the ammo to get the best deal done. Have a lot of teams actually called the Patriots as Belichick claims? By not mentioning which teams, it leaves the uncertainty out there.

That's why Belichick quickly rebuffed a report that had a deal "done" with his Patriots moving up to the sixth pick in a trade with Detroit for both firsts, a second and a fourth.

"There is no way (that will happen)," Belichick said. "And I think you can rule out a trade to five, four, three, two and one too. I don't even want it out there that we would be considering that. To me it would be embarrassing to even think about that."

That price would seem too steep to begin with, but it doesn't help the Patriots to have a rumor like that one circulating this year, especially given the specific parameters of that proposal. They hold the cards and teams wanting to move down will be bidding for the Patriots picks this time.

"You wait until the first round comes down," Belichick said, "and if a player comes within striking distance or within range, I think that is the point where you would put that type of trade out as opposed to doing it (before the draft)."

DRAFT STRATEGY
The Patriots, like every other NFL team, are coy when it comes to draft plans, but it's hard to imagine Bill Belichick leaving the first round without one of the top running backs available.

The class of the group includes Oregon State's Steven Jackson, Virginia Tech's Kevin Jones, Michigan's Chris Perry and Florida State's Greg Jones - all of whom should be gone by the middle of the second round. So while Belichick talks up second-tier backs like Tulane's Mewelde Moore, he has to have his eye on Jackson, who would seem to be the perfect Patriot in terms of running style, ability and character.

"He is pretty mature," Belichick said of the 20-year-old underclassman. "I think he has a good upbringing. He has worked hard to achieve what he has gotten.

"Jackson is a big back, a big guy that runs well, a track guy in high school and he's been very productive even though he hasn't had the biggest holes to run through and he has good hands."

As the best of the group, Jackson won't likely be on the board for the Patriots' 21st overall selection with at least two teams ahead of them picking in the middle of the round listing a running back among their needs. It may take a trade up anywhere from five to seven spots to land Jackson, but the Patriots certainly have the flexibility to move up if Jackson is the player they covet.

Belichick claims the draft is deep at running back, which could be a smokescreen to mislead other teams needing a runner about the Patriots' intentions. Dallas is scheduled to pick at 22, one spot behind New England, and would likely take Jackson, Kevin Jones or maybe even Perry if they were available.

"I think overall, it has been a productive group," Belichick said. "You have some guys that have really been consistent. It's a pretty good-sized group. Mewelde Moore, (Bruce) Perry from Maryland are smaller, but they have been productive and they are very good players too.

"I think they all have different styles and there are a lot of guys you can like. I am sure there are a lot guys that are going to play in the league and be productive. You've got some guys that can catch it, some that are runners and less catchers and some with different combinations."

If the Patriots sit at 21 and perhaps even wait until 32 to take a back, their man could be Perry, who has the versatility to fit well in Charlie Weis' offense.

"He probably catches the ball as well as any back in the draft," Belichick said. "There isn't any reason to think he couldn't play on all three downs. He has good power, good vision, finds a lot of holes and is a nifty guy. He can make nice cuts at the line of scrimmage and get through some small places but is still a physical guy that runs hard. He has a lot going for him."

If the Patriots are able to land a runner by staying at 21, and Perry would likely be available there, then a nose tackle type could be the choice at 32 since newly acquired Keith Traylor is slated to play that spot, but has durability questions on top of the fact that he has never played on the nose.

Hawaii's Isaac Sopoaga, a 6-2, 321-pounder, is climbing up boards and has visited the Patriots. He would be a candidate at 32 or 56, the Patriots' first of two second round selections. Another nose tackle type that visited Foxborough is Texas' 6-4, 319-pound Marcus Tubbs, who could be more valuable to the Patriots and other 3-4 teams as a nose tackle prospect than to those employing a gap penetrating 4-3 front. Tubbs would likely be a late-second round target or even a third-round prospect for the Patriots.

Beyond those two positions, the Patriots' strategy will involve finding solid football players regardless of position, although the defensive backfield is likely to be addressed on day one with either a safety or a corner and perhaps an interior offensive lineman.

Georgia safety Sean Jones is an early second round prospect the Patriots would consider moving up to get. While he is not in the league of Miami's Sean Taylor, he would be a solid edition that would allow the Patriots to move Eugene Wilson back to cornerback, providing the Patriots depth in a secondary that went only five deep last year and was fortunate to avoid any long-term injuries.

The one possibility that could alter the team's needs is Ty Law's future. The Patriots could opt to deal Law on draft weekend and pick up a draft pick for either this year or next year in the process. It's hard to imagine them accepting anything less than a first rounder for the four-time Pro Bowl defensive back.

If they were able to acquire a 2004 first round pick for Law, they would likely target a cornerback and a safety on day one of the draft. Moving Law would leave the team with Wilson, Asante Samuel, Tyrone Poole and Otis Smith as the club's experienced corners with just Rodney Harrison and Wilson as every down-type safeties. Law's presence not only gives the Patriots a shutdown corner, but also flexibility with Wilson.

Virginia Tech's DeAngelo Hall is the only surefire first round talent available at corner, although there are several cover men with second round grades, including a few that will be taken in the first round because of need.

It's difficult to imagine the Patriots using a high pick on a linebacker because the top candidates lack size. Reserve linebackers like Matt Chatham, Don Davis and Larry Izzo could potentially be replaced on the roster to make room for a newcomer, but all excel on special teams. As a 3-4 team, the Patriots target defensive end/linebacker hybrids to play outside and need stout inside players to take on guards.

Top linebackers like Jonathan Vilma (Miami) and Daryl Smith (Georgia Tech) are both in the 230-pound range and would seem to lack the size to play inside in a 3-4 where they would be asked to take on guards. They would be more apt to excel in the Lovie Smith-type of defense that utilizes smaller, faster linebackers who play well in space, scrape and flow to the ball with the ability to cover backs and tight ends.

The Patriots could use a shot of youth and speed at the position and a first day pick at linebacker could mean trouble for aging inside linebackers like Roman Phifer or Ted Johnson - the latter of whom is a two-down player with a long injury history. Purdue's Niko Koutouvides, at 244 pounds, could be a target in the middle rounds.

Wide receiver would seem to be less of a need given that New England has used a second round pick on a receiver in each of the last two drafts, but the depth and size available at that position may be too much to pass up this year.

TEAM NEEDS
Ggoing into the draft the primary need had been Running back but the Patriots traded for Corey Dillon earlier this week. Other needs are nose tackle, defensive back, offensive line. RB -- The team's leading rusher, Antowain Smith, was released in February and hasn't been re-signed. Situational backs Kevin Faulk and Mike Cloud are the only experienced runners on the roster and neither has ever proven to be a lead back that can carry an offense. That's why they made the trade for Dillon who should instantly upgrade the Patriots rushing game. But give the team credit, they've won two Super Bowls with an average runner (Smith) in the backfield, but it's time to give Tom Brady a running threat that can keep teams off balance. They still could take a running back in the second or third round to add some depth and add an insurance policy in the event that Dillon does not adapt to his new team.

NT - The Patriots' 3-4 base defense requires a nose tackle that can stay strong at the point in the middle of the defense and force runners to bounce outside to the team's faster contain players. Losing Ted Washington was a big blow, and Keith Traylor, while 340-pounds, has never played the spot even though he has the stature to do so. He is a short-term fix and if the Patriots get the chance to take a young run-stopping specialist to put up front with the likes or Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Jarvis Green, they have to do it. With Washington playing in the middle last season, the Patriots allowed 89 rushing yards per game as opposed to 136 in 2002 in the year before his arrival.

DB - Eugene Wilson's ability to play safety or corner gives Bill Belichick the ability to target the best available defensive back regardless of whether that is a corner or a safety, although the team still needs depth at safety, a fact that was obvious late in the Super Bowl when Chris Akins and Shawn Mayer were playing in place of the injured Wilson and Rodney Harrison. If the team plans to rid itself of Ty Law, this need moves to cornerback rather than either corner or safety.

OL - Losing Damien Woody left a hole in the middle of what is now a thin Patriots offensive line. Guard Stephen Neal will factor into the competition to replace him along with Super Bowl starter Russ Hochstein, who Belichick praised after the season. But Joe Andruzzi has never been a picture of health and is entering the final year of his contract. The Patriots need depth at guard and a player who could potentially step in and start and leave Hochstein and Neal as quality backups. Left tackle Matt Light also is entering the final year of his rookie deal and right tackle Tom Ashworth has to prove he can take the next step in his development. So while guard appears to be the more immediate need, the Patriots could use a tackle that will make Light expendable next year and could potentially unseat Ashworth as the starter.

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
Even after 29 years in the NFL, Belichick still finds some fun in the draft process. "It is a team-building exercise," he said. "It's exciting. You never know how it is going to work out. It's hard to predict and is an important part of building your team."

While the Patriots have developed a reputation as team that prides itself of high-character players, they have not ruled out running back Maurice Clarett, who ran into some legal problems while at Ohio State. Clarett played high school ball for the father of Patriots quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels, and the team will have all the information it needs to evaluate the one-year college star.

"We have seen him and talked to him. He's a good player and had a lot of production while helping Ohio State win a national championship. We've done a lot of work on him," Belichick said.

The Patriots enter the draft with nine picks, two each in rounds one, two and four with one in the third, fifth and seventh. Their picks are slated to be at 21, 32, 56, 63, 95, 113, 128, 164 and 233. Over the years, the team has drafted 26 offensive players in the first round and 18 defensive players, including nine defensive backs. Under Belichick, the Patriots have spent first round picks on two defensive linemen and a tight end.

New England has picked at 21 twice since 1970, landing safety Tim Fox at that spot back in 1976 and tight end Daniel Graham in 2002. It has never selected at 32. Last year's picks at those two spots, Browns center Jeff Faine and Raiders defensive end Tyler Brayton, were both starters.

The Patriots have selected 56th six times with little success. Wide receivers Vincent Brisby and Cedric Jones, guard Calvin Stephens, defensive end Ben Thomas, defensive back Brad Dusek and linebacker Mike Ballou were the choices. At 63, the Patriots landed tight end Marv Cook, who developed into a Pro Bowler before being replaced by Ben Coates.

WR Troy Brown, with the blessing of Massachusetts State Treasurer Tim Cahill, and the sponsorship support of Banknorth, will host Troy Brown Celebrity Bingo on May 13 at Gillette Stadium to raise money for the Celebrity for Charities Foundation, the Patriots Charitable Foundation and the United Way. Brown appeared in a United Way ad campaign two years ago in a spot where he was playing bingo at a retirement home. At the team's 2004 Super Bowl parade in Boston, Brown took the microphone and screamed, "Bingo! We got bingo! We won again!"

"We're excited about the event because it gives us the opportunity to help a lot of people," Brown said. "We encourage everyone to come join us. It will be an evening to remember."

Adam Vinatieri, David Givens, Deion Branch and David Patten are some of the Patriots scheduled to appear at the event, which will include a live and silent auction, buffet dinner and 10 bingo games. Tickets can be purchased at www.troybrown.meetthepros.com or by calling (978) 749-6700.

The Patriots' schedule has plenty of oddities to analyze, although none truly matter once the ball is kicked off. The team will play only seven of its 16 games at 1 p.m. with two Monday night games, a Thursday nighter and a Sunday nighter to go with five 4 p.m. contests. They will play five 2003 playoff teams, won't play a single team coming off a short week and will play two teams coming off their bye. They will play host to a three-game home stand in October while finishing with two of their last three on the road in the division (at Miami and New York). Their bye is Week Three and they will play host to Miami on Oct. 10. If they win their first three games, they will have won 18 straight, the number won by the 1972-73 Dolphins. That game could give New England a chance to surpass the great Dolphins winning streak, although 17 of those Miami wins came in the league's only undefeated season.

The Patriots will visit the White House on May 10 and are scheduled to receive their Super Bowl champion rings on June 13. The team will hold a rookie orientation camp the weekend after the draft with a mandatory full-squad mini-camp scheduled for June 7-12.

QUOTE TO NOTE:
"I'm going back in the draft. Maybe I can go higher than the eighth round this time." -- Wideout Troy Brown when asked for his opinion about the draft. Brown was an eighth round pick in 1993 and developed into one of the Patriots' all-time great receivers.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
O-T-I-S is back. The Patriots re-signed 38-year-old unemployed cornerback Otis Smith to add veteran depth to a thin secondary. It is Smith's third stint with the team (1996-1997, 2000-2002) in his 15-year career.

The Patriots released Smith during training camp last summer after a nagging injury kept him from getting on the field. He started 13 games for the Lions last year with 67 tackles one interception after starting for Bill Belichick's Patriots for three years between 2000 and 2002.

"I am sure there were some adjustments made last year because they did have new guys come in, but the system overall, I never have problems learning a system," Smith said. "Intelligence isn't one of my problems. So whatever system is in or whatever they're doing right now, I just have to adjust to it.

"They told me they'd give me an opportunity to make the team. I'll play wherever they want me to play whether it's corner, safety, receiver or quarterback. It doesn't matter."

Smith is vying for a roster spot before a starting job, but will certainly compete for playing time as a third, fourth or fifth cornerback depending on how the depth chart shapes up.

Smith is an up-and-down performer who has shown a penchant for making big plays throughout his career but for allowing them as well. He led the Patriots with five interceptions in 2001 and was an MVP candidate in Super Bowl XXXVI.

The 5-11, 198-pounder out of Missouri has 525 career tackles to go with 5.5 sacks and 29 interceptions for 645 return yards. His seven interception returns for touchdowns ranks sixth in NFL History behind Rod Woodson (12), Ken Houston (9), Aeneas Williams (9), Deion Sanders (8) and Eric Allen (8).

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (11)
TE Fred Baxter; FB Larry Centers; DE Bobby Hamilton; S Antwan Harris; QB Damon Huard; LS Brian Kinchen; DT Rick Lyle; DE Anthony Pleasant; RB Antowain Smith; P Ken Walter; WR Dedric Ward.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: (None)

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS (5)
OT Tom Ashworth; OG Wilbert Brown; WR David Givens; S Shawn Mayer; OG Steve Neal.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED (7)
S Je'Rod Cherry; RB Mike Cloud; LB Don Davis; RB Kevin Faulk; OG Russ Hochstein; FB Patrick Pass; WR J.J. Stokes.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED (5) >BR> DE Rodney Bailey; P Josh Miller; CB Otis Smith; DT Keith Traylor; RB Corey Dillon.

PLAYERS LOST (4)
S Chris Akins; OG Mike Compton; DT Ted Washington; OG Damien Woody.

MEDICAL WATCH No updates.

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