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Pats bolster depth, if not excitement

NEW FACES — Marc Edwards (left) and Larry Izzo are among the many veteran free agents signed to give New England more depth and experience for the 2001.
NEW FACES — Marc Edwards (left) and Larry Izzo are among the many veteran free agents signed to give New England more depth and experience for the 2001.

As promised, the Patriots have not made a huge splash in the free agent market. Instead of splurging on one big name, New England added seven average-priced, need-assessing veterans to provide depth and competition when training camp arrives.

Several positions need upgrades from last season, with obvious problems existing at either guard spot, fullback, defensive line, cornerback, linebacker and wide receiver. The problems are by no means solved, but they have all been addressed.

Perhaps the biggest improvement so far was made at fullback, where Marc Edwards was signed to replace Tony Carter. A four-year veteran who has never missed a game in the NFL, Edwards packs a solid frame (6-0, 240) capable of delivering a strong block or serving as a receiver out of the backfield. He is excited about playing in Charlie Weis' offense.

"I figured this was the best place for a fullback to be," Edwards said. "The way Charlie Weis runs his offense, I can be used as more than just a big old battering ram. This system gives me a chance to make a few plays, catch the ball out of the backfield and carry the ball here and there. Of course I'll still get a chance to knock some linebackers around a bit, too."

While Edwards figures as the starter, veteran Larry Bowie and Jeff Paulk, who finished 2000 on the Patriots roster, will compete for backup roles. None of the fullbacks who played significant roles in 2000 are with the team any longer.

Other signings on offense were guards Joe Panos and Mike Compton, backup quarterback Damon Huard and wide receiver Bert Emanuel.

Panos has been a quality starter when healthy over the last six seasons, but neck, eye and rotator cuff problems have caused him to miss time. Compton is an eight-year veteran who has played both center and guard in his career, all with the Detroit Lions. He has started 85 games in the last six seasons and should be expected to win a starting job in New England. Their arrival increases competition at guard, a position that now includes experienced veterans Panos, Joe Andruzzi, Max Lane and Sale Isaia. With youngsters Damien Woody, Adrian Klemm and Greg Robinson-Randall still learning, the Patriots have a blend of experience and talent that should be an improvement over the last several years.

Huard and Emanuel are two of four Miami players moving north to New England. Huard signed a three-year deal to be Bledsoe's backup, an indication the team wants more experience than Michael Bishop and Tom Brady could offer.

As a backup to Dan Marino and Jay Fiedler for the last two seasons, Huard was 5-1 in starts and 6-2 when he played more than half the game.

Emanuel brings seven seasons of experience to a wide receiver group largely unproven behind Terry Glenn and Troy Brown. His production has fallen recently and he doesn't address the size problems at the position at just 5-10, 185 pounds, but he could be a third or fourth receiver with the ability to stretch defenses.

On the defensive side of the ball, Belichick added three possible starters and a stud on special teams. Defensive end Anthony Pleasant, entering his 12th season, is no spring chicken at 32 years old, but he has been very durable, playing all 16 games eight times, including each of the last three years.

New England needs pressure off the end opposite Willie McGinest. While Pleasant may not be a huge force, he is an upgrade from Brandon Mitchell and has proven to be more adept on a full-time basis than Greg Spires.

Pleasant's experience with Belichick is also a major factor. He played his best ball under Belichick's tutelage with both Cleveland and the Jets, and, like Bobby Hamilton a year ago, can fit in the defensive system with little problem.

The defensive system Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel run played a major role in Mike Vrabel's decision to come to New England. A four-year situational player in Pittsburgh, Vrabel has a shot to start as an outside linebacker rushing off the edge, providing a possible inexpensive replacement for Chris Slade. With Andy Katzenmoyer returning from a neck injury, Vrabel is added insurance as either a starter or backup.

A defensive end in college, Vrabel switched to linebacker in 1998 and had 2.5 sacks in 11 games of reserve duty. In four seasons as a backup, Vrabel has 43 tackles, seven sacks, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Patriots fans may remember Vrabel from the 1997 AFC playoff loss to Pittsburgh when, with less than two minutes left, he forced a Drew Bledsoe fumble to clinch the Steelers 7-6 victory.

Linebacker Larry Izzo, who spent five seasons in Miami, also signed in March. Barring unforeseen situations, he will be a backup at middle linebacker, the same role he filled behind Zach Thomas.

Izzo may be the most dynamic signing of the group. He had 31 special teams tackles last year, helping earn a Pro Bowl berth.

"If you look at my situation, I can step in and make plays on special teams, provide depth and maybe provide some leadership in the locker room," Izzo said. "But you can't be appointed a leader. People have to look at you and you have to earn their respect."

The cornerback spot was a problem last year, however, the signing of Terrance Shaw, also from Miami, once again provides solid competition with Ty Law, Otis Smith and Antonio Langham among the incumbents. A starter for five of his six seasons in the NFL, Shaw left the Dolphins because they had Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain in place, and he wanted a shot to start.

Regardless of who starts, Shaw's arrival at the very least improves the Patriots nickel package. Shaw was very effective in that role with the Dolphins.

New England made two other moves in the secondary. Serwanga and safety Matt Stevens were re-signed. Serwanga was supposed to play in NFL Europe this summer, but paperwork problems prevented that. Stevens, a five-year veteran, spent the final week of the regular season with the team and will get an extended look in training camp.