FOXBORO, Mass. (July 28, 2003) -- The New England Patriots are the third stop in the AFC East on my camp tour, and it's becoming more obvious why this division is so tough.
Buffalo has Drew Bledsoe under center and he threw for over 4,000 yards last year. The Jets have Chad Pennington, the highest-rated QB in the NFL last year. And now it's Tom Brady in New England, the guy who threw the most touchdowns in the NFL in 2002. For the Patriots to get back to the Super Bowl, they will need more than a great quarterback, and, as always, Bill Belichick and personnel director Scott Pioli have brought in some interesting players to help them get back to the "big dance."
The defense slipped in 2002, but a couple of the team's new additions jumped out at me while I watched practice. On one particular dime-defense call in the live-team period, two unrestricted free agents signed in the offseason -- Rosevelt Colvin and Rodney Harrison -- blitzed the quarterback, beat the protection and got to the signal-caller.
Colvin and Harrison made it look easy as they timed their pass rush just perfectly and stopped the offense cold. Belichick is a master of scheming defenses to fit his personnel and these two look like a match made in heaven.
But it was up front that the 2002 Patriots defense stumbled, resulting in the announcement that this year the scheme would be based on a 3-4 front. Richard Seymour is already one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL and Belichick told me the team hopes to play him at right defensive end. But the nose tackle position is up in the air with Jarvis Green getting the first shot at the position. If the preseason exposes the reality that the Pats don't have a true nose tackle, then Seymour will have to man that all-important spot. The staff doesn't want that to happen, but it may.
As I took a close look at DE Willie McGinest working out in shorts while the rest of the team was in full pads, it sure looked like New England could jump back into the 4-3 scheme whenever they want and cause problems for opponents. Defensive end Bobby Hamilton will probably rotate at left defensive end with first-round draft pick Ty Warren. What made the Patriots camp impressive to me was how much help Hamilton and Anthony Pleasant were willing to give the rookie.
In the secondary, Ty Law is still a premier cornerback and Otis Smith has held off the competition for 11 years -- he's not about to surrender the position in his 12th year. Smith will get a challenge as the season goes on from one of the two rookie corners. Both second-round pick Eugene Wilson and fourth-rounder Asante Samuel will make the team and push to play.
Tyrone Poole was signed in the offseason for the nickel cornerback job, but his body language and attitude need to improve if he wants to be here in September. As one personnel man with the team said, "(Belichick) wants to coach guys who want to be here and be unselfish; once he doesn't want to coach a guy, his days are numbered."
On the offensive side of the ball, the camp hero so far is wide receiver Deion Branch. When I got to camp, just about every coach I spoke with brought up how well Branch looks. At the morning practice, he lived up to the billing by getting behind the secondary twice, although he dropped one sure touchdown.
The Patriots want WR Bethel Johnson, the club's second-round pick, to contribute early, but he showed his speed in an inconsistent way during practice and had to be reminded by a few Patriots employees to finish plays. A guy who caught my eye during the passing segments of practice was undrafted rookie receiver Dan Stricker from Vanderbilt. Whether he makes the roster or not, he can catch the football and he runs excellent routes.
The Patriots need to run the ball better than they did in 2002 when they ranked 28th in the league, but the ground game remains a question mark. Antowain Smith appeared to be in better shape than he was last year at this time and Kevin Faulk has made a step up in his quest to be a quality player. That being said, I still expect the team to sign Larry Centers in the next few days. He will be a valuable asset on third downs, not just as a receiver, but a blocker in protection. It's important to remember that in 2002 the New England running backs combined for 92 receptions, 823 yards and five touchdowns. Centers will boost this already-impressive stat.
Matt Light is the starting left tackle and he will appreciate whatever chip blocking a guy like Centers or Faulk can give him. If the Patriots continue to average just under 38 passes a game, which I think they will, then their protection and yards per catch must go up. Their top receiver last year was Troy Brown and he averaged under 10 yards per reception. If camp practice is any indication of philosophy, then you should expect more deep balls in 2003.
Finally, the team opens up at Buffalo in what should be a very difficult game that will have big playoff implications down the road. Belichick seems a lot more at ease with this team than in years past and that breeds an air of confidence among his players. If they can slow down the opposing running game, if they can get a more balanced offense, and if they develop one more inside defensive lineman, then they will get to 10 wins in a division where teams beat each other up all the time.