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Faulk to get more chances?

Kevin Faulk emerged as a major all-purpose threat last season. Should that lead to an expanded role?

The Patriots were 3-4 when they went to Buffalo in Week Nine of last season looking to climb out of a miserable four-game losing streak in which the defense struggled in nearly every facet and the offense had hit a production wall.

The team needed a boost and if the extra motivation provided by the team's first encounter with its former Franchise quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, wasn't enough, one of the smallest all-purpose packages on the team was plenty.

The 5-8, 202-pound Kevin Faulk emerged as a spark plug in New England's 38-7 win that started a 5-1 streak and moved the team back into the AFC East championship hunt. In fact, Faulk was arguably the team's MVP over the final nine games when he carried 34 times for 179 of his 271 yards, caught 27 of his 37 passes for 274 of his 379 receiving yards and returned 18 of his 26 kickoffs for 553 of his 725 kickoff return yards.

All total over those final nine games, he compiled 1,006 of his 1,440 all-purpose yards and five of his seven touchdowns while becoming the first player in Patriots history and the only NFL player last year to score multiple touchdowns rushing (2), receiving (3) and via kickoff return (2).

"Kevin had a very productive season last year and we'll give him every opportunity to display his skills this year," Head Coach Bill Belichick said. "And he has a variety of them as a runner, returner and receiver. We hope Kevin can be as productive as he was last year or maybe more so in some other areas like the running game. He's got an opportunity to show that."

Faulk's versatility is a huge asset to the club when he is producing as he did last season, his best in his four years even if 2000 was a better overall statistical season (570 rushing yards, 465 receiving yards, 816 kickoff return yards and 58 punt return yards).

Faulk's improvement was noticeable last season as he accepted his role and excelled in it. But it begs the question: should that role be expanded? If it is, the Patriots run the risk of using Faulk outside his areas of strength, which include using his shiftiness to run well in space, and creating match-up problems as a receiver out of the backfield. Overusing him could expose his weaknesses.

It's not as if Faulk is cut out to be an every down between-the-tackles-runner, but used correctly he can impact games the way he did when he emerged as the team's most explosive threat at the end of last year.

"I really have a lot of respect for Kevin," Belichick said, "because in the three years {I've coached him], he's taken the instruction given to him and improved in the areas he's been asked to improve in. He's worked hard. He's one of the most respected players on the team. He goes about things in a different way but a very professional way.

"Kevin's worked hard. He's jumping up there in this camp to meet the challenge. He jumps up there in blitz pickup drills and we all know that's not his primary role on the team, but at times, he'll be called on to do it. He'll take on those guys that outweigh him by 50-60 pounds and wants to compete against them.
He has a really good attitude."

Because of that attitude and willingness to take on any assignment asked of him, Faulk will be given the opportunity to expand his role, perhaps in the running game where his elusiveness might, at times and against certain defenses, be a better option than Antowain Smith's power style.

But it is a fine line the Patriots walk with Faulk. He was used perfectly over the last half of 2002 and similar consistent contributions over a full year would suit the offense just fine. Giving him more carries in the running game would, if nothing else, eliminate some of the predictability when he is on the field since he was tremendously effective catching screens last year. It may help keep defenses off balance, but only if he produces with more opportunities.

One of Belichick's strengths as a coach is utilizing players in a way that accentuate their strengths. He must be careful not to step outside that box with Faulk.

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