One of the more intriguing developments to keep an eye on during training camp will be along the offensive line, where several intense battles for playing time will take place.
New England finds itself in a unique situation up front, blending remarkable continuity with heavy competition that potentially could create quite a shakeup in the trenches. The Patriots return the top 12 linemen from the complete roster at the end of 2001 while adding strong depth in the form of free agent guard Rich Tylski. Of the 12 returning players, guards Mike Compton and Joe Andruzzi and tackle Greg Robinson-Randall each started every game last season, while center Damien Woody started 15 and played almost all of the 16th, entering the game early as a reserve.
Despite returning so many pieces from a line that blocked for New England's best running game since 1996, more than one starting slot could be manned by a new face come Week One. Tylski, who started 26 over the last two seasons games for 2001 AFC runner-up Pittsburgh, will push Compton and Andruzzi hard at the guard spots. Since 1996, Tylski has started 62 of the 77 games he played in for the Steelers (2000-2001) and Jacksonville Jaguars (1996-99).
Of the three main guys involved in the guard competition, Compton is the most versatile, having played every spot along the line in his career. He was the center in shotgun situations throughout last season, and if Woody continues to struggle in that department, it could further cloud the line situation. Since 1996 Compton has started all 94 games he has played, missing just two games over the stretch.
Andruzzi doesn't have the length of service to match Compton, but since joining the Patriots he has been a fixture on the line.
After starting at left guard in all 11 games he appeared in during 2000, Andruzzi made the switch to right guard and started every game last season. The coaching staff loves his toughness, which was well-documented throughout the championship run. First he dealt with his close personal ties to the Sept. 11 tragedies. Then after suffering what appeared to be a very serious knee injury at Miami in Week Four, he recovered in time to start every game the rest of the way, despite at one time being listed as "out" for the next game. It was the type of heart, determination and toughness that can't be taught or gauged, and coaches can only hope it rubs off on other players.
With three starting quality players competing for two spots, it is virtually impossible to say which two will get the nod. Expect Compton and Andruzzi to open camp with the first group, with Tylski mixing in. This is exactly the competition the team expected at guard before the surprising retirement of Joe Panos one day into camp a year ago.
Of the remaining players at guard, fourth-year player Grey Ruegamer is a solid backup at both guard and center. He started one game at center last season when Woody was slowed by a neck injury, but appeared in 14 games overall on the line and in special teams. His versatility should help him in the fight for a roster spot. Also in the mix are first-year players Drew Inzer, Stephen Neal and NFL Europe allocation Mike Clare.
Head Coach Bill Belichick praised Inzer's improvement and work ethic during the offseason. As the only player to spend the entire 2001 season on the practice squad, Inzer could be a player to watch throughout camp. Neal is the Olympic-level wrestler-turned-lineman entering his second year of football. Clare spent the summer with the Frankfurt Galaxy and faces an uphill battle for the roster.
The only thing slowing Woody at the center spot is his inconsistency with the shotgun snap. In three seasons he has played all 48 possible games, starting 47 times and playing nearly the entire game in his one non-start, which was the result of a neck problem. The team went through last season with Woody switching to left guard and Compton handling center chores in shotgun situations, and it'll be interesting to see what happens in that area this season.
Besides Woody and Compton, Ruegamer can play center. Also in the mix is NFL Europe allocation Patrick Downey. A veteran of the Arena League, the 27-year-old Downey suffered a season-ending injury for the Frankfurt Galaxy midway through the NFL Europe season. Calling him a long shot for the final roster would be fair.
Much like the guard slots, the tackle positions will be highly competitive. How certain competitions pan out may have major implications on the rest of the line and the roster as a whole. Heading into camp, the starters should remain consistent with much of last season, with Matt Light on the left side and Greg Robinson-Randall on the right side.
Robinson-Randall asserted himself quickly on the right side last season. He started every game and was one of the first linemen to cement a job during training camp a year ago. This time around he figures to have the inside track on the job again, provided he maintains his consistent level of play.
As a rookie, Light started 12 of the 14 games he played at the demanding left tackle position. By all accounts he performed well as a second-round pick out of Purdue, but he didn't remove all doubt that he had the job nailed. He experienced both highs and lows, but his production was a major reason for the team's success. What remains to be seen is whether Light may be better served over the long haul by moving inside if someone else can handle the left tackle slot.
One of the players looking to push Light in camp is fellow second-year tackle Kenyatta Jones, who appeared in five games as a rookie. A fourth-round pick last year, Jones will be particularly hungry for a spot this time around after spending most of his rookie year on the sidelines. It was the first time in his career he had to watch others play, and the feeling didn't sit well. After spending time at tackle and guard last season, he is listed specifically as a tackle right now and was with the first unit in mini-camp while Light recovered from shoulder surgery.
Also in the mix is third-year player Adrian Klemm, who is in danger of becoming an afterthought. Belichick's first draft pick with the Patriots, Klemm has seen his career derailed by injuries to this point. Last year he appeared to have the inside track to the starting left tackle slot before an arm injury put him on the sidelines just before the start of the season. During the recent mini-camp, Klemm worked exclusively at right tackle with the second offense. Still talented enough to start, Klemm may be short on time to prove himself and can't afford to miss more camp this year.
Veteran **Grant Williams** is back in the mix at tackle, re-signing after a brief dip in the free agency pool. Not a likely starting candidate, Williams proved his value last season by filling in several times for Light when the rookie was injured. Williams started four games and made several big plays throughout the season, particularly in the Super Bowl. A year ago, the thought was that Williams was on the outside looking in as camp was closing. While he isn't assured of anything this time around, a spot on the roster seems quite likely.
Also in the tackle mix is first-year player Tom Ashworth, who spent two different stints on the practice squad last season.
According to a report on NFLEurope.com, German-born defensive tackle Daniel Benetka is set to join the New England Patriots. According to team officials, no deal is signed or is expected soon.
The former University of Idaho track and field star, only converted to football three years ago and spent time with the Frankfurt Galaxy in NFL Europe this summer. Last year he was in training camp with Indianapolis for a bit.
According to the story, Benetka's agent was going to fly to New England to discuss the contract and take care of the visa requirements.
"My agent had also been approached by the Baltimore Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars and Chicago Bears, who all invited me to camp," Benetka was quoted as saying in the story. "Last year, my agent had to convince the Indianapolis Colts to give me a try. They were interested in my talent but concerned because I was lacking experience. This year, I am a totally different player. I have developed my skills and my mind, and I can read the game as fast as any American player."
Benetka recorded seven tackles, defended five passes and intercepted one pass during the NFL Europe season.