If continuity is a key to success, the Patriots could well be on their way to another strong season in 2002.
Under the direction of Head Coach Bill Belichick and Director of Player Personnel Scott Pioli, New England has its roster loaded with quality depth and competition in just about every area. That depth created an odd situation at rookie camp over the weekend, when only eight rookies and one first-year free agent took part on the drills.
Unlike the team that Belichick took over for the 2000 season, which consisted of a handful of pricey veterans and an abundance of rookies and first-year free agents, this roster is spread evenly with big-money players, experienced middle-class veterans and youth. The roster, currently at 80 players, including unsigned draft picks, has the look of a balanced, competitive bunch with a lot of carryover.
Of the 80 players on the roster, 56 spent a significant amount of time with the Patriots in some capacity. Even some younger players who spent most of the season on injured reserve, such as running back Walter Williams, defensive lineman Jace Sayler and tight end Jabari Holloway, had the whole season to ease into the life of professional football. New England had a big stash of players on injured reserve who stayed with the team and are familiar with the team system. This should make the start of training camp smoother than usual, as very few players will be totally new to the everyday workings of the team.
Obviously the eight rookies will face a learning curve when the season gets underway. Normally though, there are big numbers of rookie and first-year free agents on top of the drafted rookies, but such is not the case for the Patriots. Besides the eight rookies, there are only 14 players who did not spend any time in New England last season. Of those 14, 10 are veteran free agents with significant playing time in the NFL.
All the experience means much less time wasted for Belichick in terms of orientating players to life in the NFL. The situation, in his eyes, is far better than the one he took over just two years ago.
"In 2000 our [veteran player] numbers were in the thirties prior to the draft," Belichick said. "From a cap standpoint, we just didn't really have much money at all and the only players that we could sign were rookie free agents."
Now, instead of just fielding a team of warm bodies, Belichick will have to pare bodies down from a much higher talent level. It's a much better situation than that of 2000 Super Bowl champion Baltimore, which now has just six starters remaining from its title-winning team.
"The cap situation has improved a little bit and we had a pretty full roster at the end of the year," Belichick said. "A lot of those guys remain under contract. We added a few new ones and drafted some guys to fill us up to the 80-man limit."