PHOTO: New England Patriots defensive backs Asante Samuel (22) and Eugene Wilson (26) celebrate after an interception against Denver Broncos quarterback Danny Kanell in the closing minute that secured a 30-26 victory over the Broncos in Denver Monday, Nov. 3, 2003. The Patriots record is now 7-2 with five consecutive wins. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Patriots Young Stars Come in pairs
By John MacKenna
New England Patriots' Head Coach Bill Belichick and Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli have used every available means to assemble the team that is now headed for its third Super Bowl in four years.
During the 2004 offseason, they pulled a trade to acquire star RB Corey Dillon. In the previous three offseasons, they dipped into the free agent pool and found key players including safety Rodney Harrison and linebacker Mike Vrabel.
But it is the draft that has yielded the majority of the Patriots' core players. As the Patriots prepare for Super Bowl XXXIX next Sunday, they are counting on key contributions from at least 18 players who were drafted by New England and have spent their entire careers here. That group includes quarterback Tom Brady, linebackers Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest and Ted Johnson, and tight end Daniel Graham.
Within that group of 18 are three pairs of young players who exemplify New England's approach to building a team. These pairs are linked by position and their arrivals dates in New England, and all six players are being counted on for key contributions against the Eagles next Sunday.
When the Patriots won their first Super Bowl on Feb. 3, 2002, Branch was a senior at Louisville and Givens was a senior at Notre Dame. Two months later, both were drafted by the Patriots. Branch was a high-profile pick, taken in the second round; Givens was selected with no fanfare late in the seventh round.
Branch started contributing right away, catching 43 passes for 489 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie. Givens played special teams as a rookie but caught only nine passes for 92 yards. The rookie receivers did not experience the postseason their first year, as New England finished at 9-7 and missed the playoffs.
As sophomores, Branch and Givens got plenty of opportunities. David Patten, a star in the '01 and '02 seasons, missed most of the '03 season with an injury, and veteran Troy Brown had slipped considerably since 2001, when he caught 91 balls. Branch and Givens stepped in as the top two wideouts, and both of them excelled when healthy. Branch started 12 games and caught 57 passes for 803 yards and 3 touchdowns. Givens started five games and caught 34 for 510 yards and six touchdowns.
Now in their third seasons, Branch and Givens have developed into a solid receiver tandem for New England. Branch is the burner, who catches a lot of deep balls by blowing past defenders as he did in last Sunday's AFC Championship game, when he caught a 60-yard touchdown strike from QB Tom Brady. At 5'9", Branch is a small receiver, but he is plenty tough, as he demonstrated by holding onto a pass last week while absorbing a massive hit from Steelers' safety Troy Polamalu. Givens is not huge at 6'0", 215 pounds, but he plays like a big receiver and is an excellent blocker.
Branch missed seven games this season with a leg injury but still caught 35 passes for 454 yards and four touchdowns. Against Pittsburgh last week, Branch had one of his best games as a pro, catching a 60-yard touchdown pass and rushing 23 yards on a reverse for a touchdown. He totaled 153 yards on four catches and two rushes.
Givens has caught nine balls in the Patriots in two playoff games this year. In the regular season, he caught 56 for 874 yards and went over 100 receiving yards in four games.
Branch and Givens may not be as highly regarded as some NFL receiving tandems, but they combine with Brady to give the Patriots an excellent passing game to complement Dillon's stellar running. In Super XXXVIII, Branch and Givens combined for 15 catches, 212 yards and two touchdowns.
The Patriots specialize in finding bargains in the draft's later rounds, such as 2001 sixth-round pick Brady and 2002 seventh-rounder Givens. When it comes to the defensive line, however, they splurge. Belichick's 3-4 defense demands superior play from the defensive line, and the Patriots have used their top picks in three of the last four drafts on D linemen.
The marquee player is Richard Seymour, the sixth pick overall in the 2001 draft, who is widely regarded as one of the NFL's top defensive linemen. New England won the Super Bowl when Seymour was a rookie, and they've earned Super Bowl appearances in three of Seymour's four seasons.
The other two line positions are manned by Warren, the 13th pick in the 2003 draft, and Wilfork, the 21st pick in 2004. Warren has had to make a name for himself this year after suffering through a lackluster rookie season in which he split time at left defensive end with Bobby Hamilton. Wilfork walked into a tough spot as a rookie. The Patriots had received excellent play at nose tackle last season from veteran Ted Washington, but Washington departed as a free agent and left some very big shoes for Wilfork to fill.
Things started badly, as the Colts ran all over the young line in the season opener for 202 yards, then got worse on Oct. 31 in Pittsburgh, when the Steelers rushed for 221 yards. But once the starting cornerbacks, Tyrone Poole and Ty Law, were both lost for the season, the pressure was on the line to shut down opposing runners and get after the quarterback. With Warren and Wilfork playing on most snaps, the line responded, and opposing runners found the going very tough. By season's end, New England ranked sixth in the NFL in rush defense (98.3 yards per game) and third with 45 sacks.
Warren finished with 49 tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles. Wilfork logged 42 tackles, two sacks and three passes defensed.
When Seymour was forced to miss this season's first two playoff games with a knee injury, Warren and Wilfork had to step it up with help from third-year man Jarvis Green. In the Divisional Championship, the line helped hold the Colts to 46 yards rushing. Against the Steelers in the AFC Championship, the defense surrendered 163 rushing yards but kept the Steelers in check in the first half, while New England was building a 24-3 lead.
Warren and Wilfork combine with Seymour to give the Patriots an all-first-round defensive line with an average age of 24.
Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel:
Wilson and Samuel will forever be linked because they were both drafted in 2003 as cornerbacks. Wilson (2nd round) became a starter at free safety two games into his NFL career, after the Patriots had traded Tebucky Jones and released Lawyer Milloy. The Patriots used Samuel (4th round) as a nickel back last year them elevated him to starter this year after Poole was injured.
While Wilson has been a consistent force in the secondary, Samuel has battled injuries and this year missed three games. In the playoffs, though, Samuel has been immense, playing a key role in the Jan. 16 Divisional Championship, when the Patriots beat the Colts, 20-3, and held QB Peyton Manning to 238 passing yards and no completions longer than 16 yards. Samuel also provided excellent coverage in last week's win over the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.
Wilson also came up big in the Pittsburgh game, picking off two of Ben Roethlisberger's 23 passes. On one of his interceptions, Wilson dove to catch a ball that Samuel had deflected.
The second-year duo now comprises half of the embattled New England secondary, which was expected to struggle once Law and Poole were lost at midseason. Instead, the Patriots finished a respectable 17th in the NFL in pass defense and went 14-2 for the second straight year and earned a return trip to the Super Bowl.
Wilson and Samuel are the cornerstones of the Patriots future defensive secondary. Cornerback Law is a Pro Bowler who has one expensive year left on his contract, and the Patriots will probably renegotiate his contract or let him leave. Harrison is a star at safety, but at 32 years old he is nearing the end. In 2004, the Patriots drafted two safeties, Guss Scott and Dexter Reid. Scott is missing this season with an injury, but he might team with Wilson and Samuel in the near future.
Neither Wilson (5'10", 195) nor Samuel (5'10", 185) is large for their position, but both are hard hitters.
John MacKenna is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can reach him in the forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna" or send him an email here
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