Class of 2004 Could Step Up in '05
By John MacKenna
The New England Patriots sometimes seem immune to the personnel problems that plague their competitors in the National Football League. It's not that New England players don't get hurt; they do, yet the team itself always overcomes.
Take the 2004 season. The Patriots went into the playoffs missing DT Richard Seymour and CB Ty Law, arguably their top two defensive players, and handily defeated two strong opponents in the Colts and Steelers (before Seymour returned for Super Bowl XXXIX.)
As the Patriots went on to win their third Super Bowl in four seasons, there was little talk about another serious roster debacle that likely would have felled any other team.
The problem was this: The Patriots got virtually no contribution from three of the top four players they drafted in 2004. There was a first-round pick who suffered a season ending injury in Week 1, a second-round pick who didn't appear in a game until Week 17, and a third-round pick who got hurt in training camp and missed the entire season.
Virtually all the contributions that the 2004 draft class has made have come from Vincent Wilfork, the nose tackle selected in the first round (No. 21) out of the University of Miami. Wilfork was outstanding as a rookie, but he stood alone in that regard.
Fourth-round pick Dexter Reid (113th overall) played pretty well on special teams but was more of a liability than an asset on defense. After Reid, the busiest of the Patriots' rookies was fourth-round running back Cedric Cobbs (128th), who played in a mere three games, logging only 22 carries for 50 yards.
What a change from the previous season, when New England won its second Super Bowl while receiving major contributions from four rookies. Second-round DB Eugene Wilson (36th) and fifth-rounder Dan Koppen (164th) stepped in as starters at safety and center, respectively. Bethel Johnson (second round, 45th) returned kickoffs, including two for touchdowns, and Asante Samuel (fourth round, 120th) became the regular nickel back.
Training Camp is set to open on July 29, and last year's problem becomes this year's opportunity, as the Patriots have a surfeit of players looking to make their first contributions. In addition to the seven rookies led by first-round offensive lineman Logan Mankins, the Patriots will "unveil" three top-100 picks from 2004.
The most-anticipated second-year player is tight end Benjamin Watson. Drafted with the second of the Patriots' first-round picks, Watson is expected to bring serious skills to the Patriots already-potent offense.
ESPN.com has this to say about the 6'3", 253-pounder out of Georgia: "He has rare speed, he is a tremendous vertical route runner, and he is a nightmare match up for linebackers or safeties."
This is what Watson's profile on NFL.com says. "Has a great frame, with very good muscle development, chiseled upper and lower body, long arms, large hands and thick thighs and calves … Consistent receiver who plays with good effort … Has a sudden upfield burst and above-average lateral quickness to reach the second level and gain position in-line … Has outstanding acceleration and speed, showing the burst and strength to easily play off the jam … Will sink his hips and separate out of his cuts downfield … Knows how to use his size to push off the defensive back and settle in the zone … Has good concentration going up for the ball in traffic … Has the speed and size to create mismatches vs. smaller defenders on deep routes."
Watson could be a potent addition to the New England offense, according to Patriots.com: "His ability to line up in the slot, work in motion and out of the back field from the full back spot should give the New England coaches a great deal of flexibility in terms of formations and personnel packages as the unit continues to strive for increased production."
Watson gets all the hype, but 2004 second-rounder Marquise Hill is equally intriguing. Drafted 63rd overall out of LSU, Hill is a monster chosen for his long-term potential and not for an immediate contribution. Coach Bill Belichick held Hill out of every game until the regular-season finale against San Francisco, so Hill has stayed completely under the radar.
Coming out of high school, Hill was regarded as one of the country's top defensive linemen. He had a strong career at LSU, and several experts predicted he would have been a first-round pick in 2005 had he stayed for his senior season at LSU rather than entering the draft after his junior year.
Hill is 6'6", 300 pounds and turns 23 next months. If he lives up to his potential, he gives the Patriots another D-line monster to go along with Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Wilfork. Hill might play a major role soon, depending on how Seymour's contract dispute plays out.
Also representing the top of the 2004 draft class is safety Guss Scott, drafted in third round (95th) out of Florida. Scott was expected to join the safety rotation with Wilson and Rodney Harrison, but he suffered a leg injury in training camp last year.
Opportunities appear limited for Hill, and to a lesser degree for Scott. The Patriots have three solid starters on the defensive line with Jarvis Green and Rodney Bailey in reserve, and Hill's best case might be to fill a role similar to the one Warren enjoyed as a rookie, playing on about half of New England's defensive downs.
Scott is stuck behind Wilson and Harrison, but he will likely be the first safety off the bench and could see plenty of action.
Watson, on the other hand, could play a major role as a receiver all season long. The Patriots employ a lot of two tight-end sets, and Watson could play often and might well emerge as the favorite new option of quarterback Tom Brady.
John MacKenna is a regular contributor to Patriots Insider. You can contact 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
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