As training camp quickly approaches for the Patriots, those of us as Patriots Football Weekly and Patriots.com thought we'd share with you our "Five Burning Questions" facing the team during camp. While questions still linger for nearly every NFL team, the beauty of camp is that the answers will have to wait. With that in mind, PFW's Andy Hart, Bryan Morry, Paul Perillo and Frank Tadych take a look at Five Burning Questions facing the Patriots as they enter Training Camp 2004.
Question: Who will seize the backup quarterback duties behind Tom Brady?
Hart: I am going to have to go with Rohan Davey, fresh off his NFL Europe success and spring diary here on Patriots.com, to continue his professional growth. There is no question the former LSU star has an NFL arm and is a great leader, but this one will come down to how accurate he can be in the Patriots diverse passing game. Davey is driven to win this camp battle and based on everything I have seen and heard of late, I am not going to doubt him until I have a specific reason to do so. But I am still anxious to see the third-year signal caller in NFL preseason action working with the first offensive unit against an opponent's first defense.
Morry: I have to believe it will be Davey. In going to Europe, he had the chance to play himself off the Patriots roster and certainly didn't do that with his MVP season that included the World Bowl Championship. But playing well in Europe doesn't necessarily translate to playing well in the NFL. It's like a baseball player who feasts on AAA pitching, but can't touch the ball in the Bigs. But Davey has a lot of the qualities the Patriots look for in a quarterback with leadership skills and the ability to manage the team high on his list of strengths. He has a better grasp of the Patriots offense than the other backup contenders and now that he has played some competitive football for the first time in a couple of years, he should be ready for a strong training camp and preseason. It's time for him to display a noticeable jump in his level of play. His confidence has to be high and I think that will show this summer.
Perillo: Belichick is playing it smart by bringing in players to create competition, but when camp ends he'll have had his man all along - Davey. Jim Miller is a great insurance policy in case Davey falters, but it's time for the former fourth-round pick to prove he's ready. His strong NFL Europe season gave him the confidence and playing experience he needed to get over the hump. His leadership skills have been unquestioned; now he's ready to show his accuracy and footwork are up to speed as well. Kurt Kittner and Kliff Kingsbury will be fighting for the third spot.
Tadych: With the acquisitions of Kittner and Miller - joining Brady, Davey and Kingsbury - Belichick has put the Patriots in a comfortable position for training camp. Miller, the most experienced of the group with 27 career starts, is a great insurance policy if any of the youngsters falter. He's out until early September after shoulder surgery, which will give Kittner, Davey and Kingsbury ample time to get much-needed reps against opposing defenses in exhibition games. My guess is that Davey will use the momentum from his stellar NFL Europe season and prove that he is ready to contribute in his third season if needed. Although he lacks any real NFL experience, the 10 starts he made over the summer are invaluable. As for Miller, there's a reason why quarterbacks such as Gus Frerotte (Minnesota), Rodney Peete (Carolina) and Doug Flutie (San Diego) stay in the league: they're experienced, reliable and also serve as another set of eyes for a quarterback coach in a mentor role for a younger quarterback. If healthy, Miller sticks on the final roster too.
**Question: What type of impact will Corey Dillon make?**
Hart: I know people will argue that the team won two Super Bowls with Antowain Smith as the main face of the running game, but I don't think there is any question that Dillon makes the Patriots a better team. He is a guy that can contribute in both the running and passing games, as well as protect the passer. He also has the durability and power to run out the clock on wins, not to mention the holes he should open up in opposing secondaries in the play-action game. Dillon brings an immediate sense of legitimacy to a New England rushing attack that has been lacking in the regular season in recent years, and that can only be a good thing.
Morry: Motivation is an interesting dynamic. Clearly Dillon was beaten down in Cincinnati and not knowing the man, I couldn't tell you if that was an excuse for what transpired last year or if it was a real culprit (along with nagging injuries). Were the injuries a sign that he might be starting to wear down after carrying the ball 1,627 times in his first seven years? In two of the last three seasons, Dillon failed to average 4 yards per carry, but he was a workhorse in 2001 and 2002 carrying 654 times for 2,626 yards over those two seasons. In 2000, he gained a career high 1,435 yards. I don't think he approaches the 1,400-yard mark, but expect him to be around 1,200 with double-digit touchdowns.
He will be better than Smith was the last two seasons when Smith had trouble even securing the lead back role on a full-time basis. But go back to 2001 when Smith gained 1,157 in his best season in New England with 12 touchdowns. Dillon's career high for rushing touchdowns is 10. I think you can expect similar numbers to Smith's 2001 season, but I think he will make a bigger impact in that he runs with better vision and will make more of less when those situations arise. I also think he will be a much more potent weapon than Smith as a receiver out of the backfield. He also will be a consistent producer and force defenses to account for him whereas Smith always seemed to start slow and pick it up in the second half. If he still has the foot speed to score from anywhere, you might be able to add a hundred or so yards to his total. Smith couldn't go 96 yards for a touchdown as Dillon did in 2001. His top four touchdown runs are from 71, 80, 96 and 67. Smith's best was a 56-yarder back in 1997 and his best in New England was a 42-yard scoring run. Dillon will provide more big plays.
Perillo: On the field, the presence of a legitimate running threat will give the Patriots offense a whole new dimension. Brady was already adept at making play-action fakes, and that was with Smith. Now Dillon will force defenses to respect the Patriots running game, which should open up the deep passing game for Brady. I expect the Patriots offense to become much more explosive with a productive Dillon in the backfield. As long as he remains content with being a part of the offense rather than its focal point, Dillon will be very successful. I expect him to add somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,200 rushing yards and close to 10 touchdowns.
Tadych: Statistically speaking, a big one. When he's at his best, Dillon has proven to be in the upper echelon of NFL running backs. He averaged over 1,350 yards per season from 2000-02 as part of six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, is a three-time Pro Bowler and owns two of the top nine single-game rushing performances in league history. It's clear the guy can play. And he can make the big play, making defenses accountable for where he is on the field. The real question is how he fits in with the Patriots, a question we're all tired of hearing and eagerly awaiting an answer to. The Pats had 473 rushing attempts last season, an average of nearly 30 per game. They also played with a second half lead in nine games, a context which lends itself to running the ball. So it's not inconceivable to think that Dillon, who averaged 323 carries per season from 2000-02, could approach those carries again this season. Add in another 40 receptions, and Dillon should produce 1,600 all-purpose yards (1,300 rushing) and 10-12 touchdowns.
**Question: Who will replace Ted Washington in the middle of the Patriots defense?**
Hart: Ideally the answer here is top pick Vince Wilfork, but I think that is a bit of a stretch early on. The jump to the pros is a difficult one, and defensive linemen generally struggle to acclimate to the pro trenches early in year one. With that in mind Keith Traylor, another guy with limited nose tackle experience, needs to hold the fort early in the year until the talented rookie is ready to take over. I think by the end of the season fans will be seeing Wilfork making plays against both the pass and the run in what will be just a sampling of what the Miami star has in store for his Patriots future.
Morry: Rookie Wilfork will have the job before the season ends although he will have to endure a learning curve that will keep him out of the starting lineup initially. So Traylor will keep the seat warm while Wilfork hones his skills as a two-gap nose tackle. But the rookie out of Miami is talented, a student of the game and he plays with the power and quickness necessary to excel in the Patriots style of defense. He also supposedly reads plays well, which augments his quickness. I think he will make an immediate impact and his playing time will increase as the calendar turns. But let's be real - Ted Washington may be the best nose tackle ever. You don't ever replace that. You hope you can come close and Wilfork will come close.
Perillo: This is a pretty big key coming into camp. Obviously, some combination of Traylor and Wilfork will need to perform well enough on run defense to allow the team to continue using the 3-4, which is Belichick's preference. In 2002, the poor run defense was the single biggest factor in the team missing the playoffs. Traylor has no experience playing the nose and Wilfork is just a rookie. But I see Traylor's experience allowing him to plug the hole well enough at the start of the season to hold the spot until Wilfork is ready. So Traylor replaces Washington for at least a month and Wilfork eventually steps in.
Tadych: Does it really matter? OK, so you're not supposed to answer a question with a question. Honestly, no one player will replace the experience or inside ability of a player like Washington. The Patriots will substitute freely along the line, meaning that no one player will have to, either. My gut says Traylor will start the season in the middle, but will split time with Wilfork later on depending on the situation. It will take time for Wilfork to adjust, and it will be a gradual process. It won't be a surprise to see Richard Seymour, Ty Warren or Jarvis Green moving inside on passing downs, meaning there will be times when neither Traylor or Wilfork is on the field anyway. The beauty of the dilemma for the Pats is they have flexibility, depth and youth up front.
Question: Do the Patriots have a legitimate shot at repeating?
Hart: A shot? Yes. Will they? Not likely. The 2004 Patriots may be a better all-around team than the one that went 17-2 a year ago, but that doesn't ensure the same results. It is just too hard to repeat in the NFL and too much has to go right for it to happen. The line between success and failure is minute - injuries, bad bounces and off the field issues can all turn a solid contender into an also-ran in the blink of an eye. The Patriots will be good, but a repeat is unlikely.
Morry: Their shot, in theory, is as good as any team's, but there is a reason that so few actually do repeat, and while I don't know exactly what that is or if it's even the same for each champion, I know it's difficult to do. Heck, three out of the last five champions missed the playoffs the following year.
So do I think the Patriots have a legitimate shot? Sure. Like the holdovers from 2001-2002, Belichick surely learned from the experience of defending a title when the Patriots went 9-7 and missed the playoffs two years ago. The 2002 team had some weaknesses exposed that maybe Belichick thought he could continue to hide, but was unable to. I think he better recognized those areas this time around and addressed them in the offseason.
I also think he and Brady give them a better chance to win than most coaches and quarterbacks give their teams. It's hard to know how the Patriots handled a shorter offseason that included less recovery time for banged up bodies, but Belichick will manage the team and the playing time appropriately considering all factors. There can be no excuse this year about not understanding what to expect and how teams will be gunning for them. It's also impossible to predict how the chemistry will come together. That said, not only do I think they can repeat, I think you should book hotel a room in Jacksonville today. They will repeat.
Perillo: While repeating in any sport is certainly a tall task, the 2004 Patriots have a much better shot to do it than the 2002 team did. For starters, this group is far superior in terms of talent. Many key players - Brady, Light, Seymour - are much better today than they were two years ago. In addition, another year of seasoning for last year's rookie class, which obviously wasn't around in 2002, should make this group much better. The team also understands a little bit more about what it means to defend a title and being the bull's eye on everyone's schedule. On paper, the team appears to be in better shape than it was at this time last year while some opponents (especially Miami) have lost plenty in the offseason. There are no guarantees, but the Patriots definitely have a legitimate shot at repeating.
Tadych: Yeah they have a legitimate shot. The Patriots didn't simply improve during the offseason, they addressed every weakness that a 14-2 team could have. Rank near the bottom of the league in rushing? Trade for Dillon. Ted Washington leaves for Oakland? No problem. Sign veteran Traylor and draft Wilfork. Concerned about the depth in the secondary? Add safeties Guss Scott and Dexter Reid in the draft, along with veteran cornerbacks Terrell Buckley and Jeff Burris via free agency. I don't anticipate Tennessee or Indianapolis matching their 12-4 records from last year, while both Baltimore (10-6) and Kansas City (13-3) were exposed in the playoffs for being one-dimensional teams. You can bet on one team - Buffalo, the New York Jets or perhaps Jacksonville - coming out of nowhere, but really this is the Patriots conference to defend. This team wins at home, and don't underestimate the improvement of Brady as he matures as a quarterback.
**Question: Which player is poised for a breakout season?**
Hart: I guess Ty Warren would be the easy answer here, but I am going to go outside the box on this one. I am going to say that Jarvis Green is going to build off his three-sack AFC Championship game performance and become a more consistent force on the New England defense in 2004. The team has a lot of young, developing defensive linemen who can rotate through and I think that will benefit Green both in terms of playing time and production. He is lighter heading into the season and no longer has to worry about learning the nose tackle spot. He is an outside player who can play inside on passing downs and will benefit from the attention guys like Richard Seymour get from opposing offensive lines. I think Green can turn that into double-digit sack numbers in 2004.
Morry: There are several candidates who will get definite chances to earn this and perhaps the most obvious is tight end Daniel Graham, who has yet to break out after being the team's top draft choice in 2002. But I'm going to go with OLB Tully Banta-Cain. After writing him off early last season because of an injury that kept him on PUP for the first six weeks, Banta-Cain stepped in and made an impact on special teams with nine tackles in nine games. Despite missing all of camp and those first six weeks, he earned some spot duty on defense late in the year and finished with three tackles and a sack. He has quickness and will be a solid pass rusher. It's difficult to determine what will be a breakout season for him because it's impossible to gauge his opportunities given the experience at linebacker. But if Rosevelt Colvin isn't ready to start the season, Banta-Cain could get some work in sub situations as a pass rusher and if so, he will prove his worth. He will make a big jump from his rookie year to Year Two.
Perillo: There are a lot of options for this question, but I'll go with Warren. Last year's first-round pick made marginal contributions in 2003 but he did show flashes of ability while he made the adjustments to a difficult scheme. A year in the system seems to have given him added confidence and he should be in serious contention for a starting role. If that wasn't the case, I doubt Belichick would have let Bobby Hamilton go. Mike Vrabel mentioned Warren as a player to watch earlier this offseason, and it looks like the former Texas A&M standout is ready to show New England why Belichick used a top pick to acquire his services.
Tadych: I was going to go with Warren as well, but I'll go a different route and pick Asante Samuel. It's difficult enough to make the jump into this league for any rookie, but Samuel showed from the get-go last season he was ready to play. A fourth-round pick in 2003, he played in all 16 games but primarily served as the nickel back. Again, a year of confidence makes all the difference for a second-year player, and it looks like Samuel could push incumbent Tyrone Poole for a starting spot. Even if he doesn't start, expect Samuel to only get better with more seasoning and make a contribution when he gets the chance