With the smoke beginning to clear regarding the Patriots recent and perhaps unprecedented foray into the free agent market, it's time to take a close look at the impact the newcomers might have.
Certainly the acquisitions of linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, safety Rodney Harrison and cornerback Tyrone Poole will make the defense stronger, but how and how much are questions that remain unanswered. Exactly how Head Coach Bill Belichick plans to use all three remains to be seen, but he'll clearly have fun exploring his options.
The former Bears pass-rushing specialist will provide the Patriots with something they haven't had in quite some time – a legitimate speed, edge rusher. With all due respect to Willie McGinest and Chris Slade, New England hasn't seen the likes of an athlete like Colvin chasing the passer since Andre Tippett was wearing the red, white and blue.
According to Bears coach Dick Jauron, Colvin is an intelligent player who has improved as a linebacker each year since making the transition from college defensive end. Jauron also believes his former sack artist is more than a one-dimensional player and is capable of playing well against the run on the strong side while terrorizing quarterbacks as an end from the weak side on passing downs.
Perhaps the best aspect of Colvin's signing is his age. Colvin will turn 26 at the start of the season (Sept. 7), giving the Patriots defense qualities Belichick openly expressed a desire for in his final press conference of the 2002 season: young athleticism. And players with his rare abilities make others better.
The question here is what effect Colvin's presence will have on the remaining linebackers. Belichick has the option of using a 4-3 or a 3-4, and likely will mix both, as he and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel have done in the past. Colvin will likely start on the strong side and Roman Phifer is the odds on favorite on the weak side. Ted Johnson and Tedy Bruschi will either split time in the middle or work as an inside tandem in a 3-4.
That leaves incumbent Mike Vrabel, who has started the last two seasons on the strong side, as the odd man out. But by no means will Vrabel become a spare part in the defense. Belichick and Crennel excel when it comes to creativity.
Remember the Patriots elaborate schemes used in Buffalo last November when the Bills offensive line had no idea who to block with New England's no down linemen front? Colvin's presence only increases those possibilities, and the coaches will work overtime figuring out the best way to utilize the personnel.
Colvin will move to the weak side and stand as an end on passing downs. Phifer and Bruschi are the best coverage linebackers on the team while Vrabel has had occasional success as a blitzer in such situations. Johnson, as the top run stopper, is the only one of the group who doesn't fit in on passing downs.
With Colvin applying heat from the outside and Richard Seymour (and hopefully a rookie first-round pick) collapsing the pocket in the middle, the Patriots pass rush becomes much more formidable. Colvin recorded 21 sacks combined the last two seasons (10.5 in each). McGinest (11 in 1995) is the last Patriot to break double digits in that category so he'll be a welcome addition.
But while 10.5 sacks is a respectable figure, it doesn't place him among the league leaders. And Colvin is now being paid as one of the best pass rushers in the game. He'll need to continue his development and increase his production for the signing to be a rousing success. But his impact on the team's defense will be immediate.
Rodney Harrison and Tyrone Poole
Harrison's arrival also should bolster the team. The nine-year veteran spent his entire career in San Diego and is eager for the chance to play for a consistent winner. During his conference call with the media on Wednesday, he sounded like a player looking to prove the Chargers wrong for letting him go. In a word, he sounded hungry. That can only bode well for New England.
Harrison is in the mold of Lawyer Milloy – a hard hitter who likes to mix it up near the line of scrimmage. Depending on what happens with free safety Tebucky Jones, who currently wears the franchise tag, the Patriots have options in the secondary as well. There has been widespread speculation that Harrison's arrival means the end of Jones' stay in New England. Reports of a deal to New Orleans, who have two No. 1 picks, have kept the rumor mill alive and well, but for now Jones remains under the Patriots jurisdiction.
If Jones stays, it gives Belichick the three-man safety rotation he's used (mostly effectively) the last two years. And Harrison, Milloy and Jones would be a better group than Milloy, Jones and Matt Stevens (in 2001) or Milloy, Jones and Victor Green (last year). Suddenly the Patriots secondary has a very physical nature to it with all three willing participants when it comes to laying the lumber.
The one question mark with said group would be pass coverage. Jones has more speed than the others and thus possesses the range to provide deep help. Milloy and Harrison are better suited as strong safeties with an eye toward helping in run support. Belichick has shown in the past that he works beyond labels and puts players in positions where they can most succeed, meaning he'd find a way to have Harrison and Milloy together in the secondary.
The argument against the Jones-Harrison-Milloy trio is money. As the franchise player, Jones is slated to earn $3.049 million this year while Milloy's cap number is a rather bulky $5.9 million. Harrison will add roughly another $1 million to the pot. That's too much for the safety position but perhaps the Patriots and Jones can still agree on a renegotiation to lower the numbers.
If Jones goes, Green could re-sign at an affordable rate. The Patriots also own a right of first refusal with the unrestricted free agent, although they would not be due compensation if they elected not to match any offer he receives.
An even more remote possibility would be Milloy leaving. He is due a $2 million bonus after the 2003 season and the last three years of his deal (2004-07) call for $20 million. The Patriots could trade him and live with Jones and Harrison as the starters.
The former Panthers, Colts and Broncos corner was believed to be one of the sleepers among the free agent crop. His signing strengthens the secondary, whether as the starter alongside Ty Law or as the nickel back with Otis Smith holding his job for another season.
Either way, Poole's presence improves the secondary. The subpackages that struggled at times in 2002 will benefit not only from Poole's arrival but also from an improved pass rush. Poole is an upgrade over Terrell Buckley, who occupied the nickel back slot the past two years. He'll press Smith for the starting job, and he wins it, could pave the way for the veteran to get some reps at safety in the event that Jones and Green don't return.
The possibilities are endless, but the bottom line for Belichick is the addition of three quality players can only benefit the defense.