The New England Patriots didn't come out firing when free agency started but Friday they made two moves that will help them continue to compete for the playoffs by re-signing receiver Troy Brown and guard Stephen Neal.
Brown, 34, has spent his entire pro career with the Patriots after being drafted in the eighth round (198th overall) of the 1993 NFL Draft. In his 13 professional seasons, the 5-foot-10-inch, 196-pound receiver has played in 175 games, seventh most in franchise history. Other teams had showed interest in Brown but in the end he decided to stay in New England and most likely retire a Patriot.
Brown ranks second on the team's all-time receiving list with 514 career receptions and also places second in team history with 5,982 receiving yards. He needs just 21 more receptions to pass Stanley Morgan's franchise record (534 receptions) and become the Patriots' all-time leading receiver. Brown is also the franchise's all-time leading return specialist with 4,416 combined return yards.
In 2004 Brown showed his versatility when he saw significant time at defensive back for an injury riddled Patriots secondary. He actually finished second on the team with three interceptions, while helping the Patriots win their second consecutive Super Bowl title.
Last season, Brown finished third on the team with 39 receptions for 466 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season. He saw action on defense in the postseason, recording four solo tackles against Jacksonville in a 2005 Wild Card playoff game. Brown also added an 11-yard touchdown reception in a 28-3 Patriots victory.
Re-signing Brown was crucial because with the loss of David Givens, Tim Dwight and Andre' Davis, the Patriots are very thin at the receiver position. Brown isn't the 100-catch player he once was but he's a reliable slot receiver and a guy Tom Brady trusts to make the big catch in crucial situations. With Brown coming back, Brady is no doubt sleeping a little bit better at night.
The Patriots originally signed Neal, 28, as an undrafted free agent on July 23, 2001. The 6-foot-4-inch, 305-pound offensive lineman has played in 34 career games with 31 starts. He has started each of the last 30 games at right guard, recording the longest current consecutive starts streak on the Patriots offensive line.
Last season, Neal started all 16 regular-season games and both playoff games at right guard and was part of an offensive line that allowed just 28 sacks and paved the way for the team to record five 100-yard rushing games.
Neal joined the Patriots on the eve of training camp in 2001, but was released following camp and spent much of his rookie season on the Philadelphia Eagles' practice squad. He was signed off of the Eagles practice squad to the Patriots active roster on Dec. 12, 2001. Neal made his NFL debut on Oct. 6 and recorded his first career start the following week against Green Bay, but left that game due to injury and missed the remainder of the 2002 and 2003 seasons. He became a starter in the third week of 2004 and hasn't missed a game since.
A former college wrestler, Neal has really improved over the years and is now one of the most consistent offensive linemen on the Patriots roster. Just like with Brown, re-signing Neal was imperative for the Patriots because of the lack of depth they have at the guard position. Other thanLogan Mankins, Neal is the only other guard News England has that is talented enough to play 16 games at the position. Russ Hochstein, Ross Tucker and Gene Mruczkowski can all play guard but those players are better suited as backups. The team felt Neal was a player whose best days are still ahead of him so they were willing to pay him the money he wanted to keep him from signing with another team. Neal had visited Minnesota, Miami and San Diego before re-signing with the Patriots.
Losing players who have meant so much to the Patriots success over the years like Willie McGinest, Adam Vinatieri and David Givens hurts, there's no doubt about that. However, the re-signing of Brown and Neal is proof that the team is still committed to keeping the players they feel can continue to help the Patriots win. These signings aren't as exciting in comparison to inking a Terrell Owens or a Julian Peterson but if the Patriots plan on competing for another Super Bowl title, they may be just as important in the long run.