As was also the case a year ago, New England has not made huge, attention
grabbing waves in the free agent pool this offseason. However, as was the
case a year ago, the team should be vastly improved in a few areas thanks to
the acquisitions made.
While none of last season's additions classified as superstars, the Patriots
added a pair of team captains (Bryan Cox and Larry Izzo), a
workhorse running back (Antowain Smith) and one of the defensive MVPs
(Roman Phifer). That doesn't include a host of others who made
significant contributions throughout the season.
This offseason figures to bring more of the same. Thus far New England has
added 13 veterans through free agency while retaining the services of Smith,
Phifer and specialists Adam Vinatieri and Ken Walter. Of the
newest additions, at least a handful will seriously contend for starting
jobs, and all bring at least a strong history of production in the kicking
On the offensive side, wide receiver Donald Hayes and tight ends
Christian Fauria a and Cam Cleeland provide sizeable targets the Patriots lacked a yearago. In Carolina last season, Hayes had 52 catches for 597 yards, numbers that would have ranked him second and third respectively with New England.
Fauria, who should fill the role while rookie Daniel Graham develops,
had pedestrian totals of 21 catches for 188 yards, but both totals were well
ahead of the leading production the team had at the position a year ago.
Also, Fauria has averaged 30 catches per year over the last four seasons,
solid consistency where the offense most needs it.
Cleeland's situation will be affected by how quickly and effectively he can recover from an Achilles injury. When healthy, he is a very strong receiver and a viable weapon on offense. If he comes back from the injury, he Fauria and Graham make a trio of tight ends that would be difficult for any team in the league to match.
On the offensive line, Rich Tylski provides the competition the team
expected from Joe Panos last season before Panos suddenly retired. Tylski, Mike Compton and Joe Andruzzi give the team three solid guards with multiple years of starting experience, and all three will compete heavily for the two starting guard spots in camp this season.
On the other side of the line, Steve Martin and Rick Lyle worked with the first defense during mini-camp. Martin replaced the departed Brandon Mitchell, the only non-returning member of the starting defense from the end of last season. Though Mitchell likely has more seasons left, Martin has been a more consistent player for a longer period, and the change is at least a wash if not an upgrade.
Lyle stepped in at end and will compete with Bobby Hamilton, who has been a very consistent performer since coming to New England. However that rotation works out, the team has more depth than a year ago.
At this point, the sixth player most expected to battle for a starting role immediately is cornerback Tommy Knight from Arizona. He was a starter for most of his five seasons with the Cardinals and helps ease the loss of veterans Terrell Buckley and Terrance Shaw. At the very least Knight will compete with second-year players Leonard Myers and Brock Williams for the nickel back role.
New England has made a point to improve the entire roster wherever possible, especially in the kicking game. Safeties Chris Hayes, Rob Kelly and Daryl Porter and linebacker Ratcliff Thomas all have strong experience in the kick coverage field, and along with holdovers Izzo, Je'Rod Cherry and Tebucky Jones will make the coverage teams as competitive as any other during camp.
Of those players, Kelly and Porter are the most likely to battle for time in the regular defense. Kelly is a former second-round pick for New Orleans hoping to make a mark after a year away from football. He and linebacker Ryan Phillips both have starting experience and should push for time.
With this year's crop of free agents, the Patriots have continued to slowly, but surely improve the overall depth and consistency of the roster. The individual talents may not be eye popping, but as the season progresses, several of these players are expected to make notable contributions as New England aims to defend its crown in 2002.