At this time last year, one of the biggest issues surrounding the Patriots was run defense. Coming off a 2002 season that saw opposing backs top the 100-yard mark with great regularity, the Patriots needed to fill a void in the middle at nose tackle.
A few weeks of training camp indicated that void hadn't been adequately filled in the offseason so Bill Belichick went out and traded for big Ted Washington. The results were overwhelmingly positive as the Patriots shut down opposing ground games, allowed just one back to top the century mark, and rolled to 15 straight wins and their second Super Bowl title in three years.
But Washington left for Oakland in the offseason, and although the concern level isn't nearly as high as it was last year, there are questions about the team's ability to fill his sizable shoes. So without Washington to rely on, Belichick went out and got the next best thing available: Keith Traylor.
The former Bear was Washington's teammate for two years in Chicago, playing side-by-side in a stout 4-3 alignment that enjoyed great success during a 13-3 campaign in 2001. Traylor's not quite as big as Washington but at 6-2, 340 pounds he's plenty wide enough to do the job. The only problem is, unlike Washington he's never actually played nose tackle or in a 3-4 set.
"I've played in 4-3s most of my career," Traylor said after Friday's morning practice on Day 2 of mini-camp. "This year the 3-4 is a little different and I'm actually liking it. I just like the relaxed [mindset] of being able to just play football. It's actually fun for me again."
Fun and nose tackle normally go together about as well as traffic issues and Democratic National Convention. But Traylor explained that he doesn't agree with some of the generally accepted reasons defensive linemen don't love playing in a two-gap set like the inability to penetrate and get after the quarterback and ball carrier.
"I really don't feel that way," Traylor said. "This is more of a modified 3-4, two-gap-type scheme. It's not so much sitting there and being a grunt. You get movement and that's what's fun about it for me."
All fun aside, the position is about as physically demanding as any on the football field. Playing head up on the center as opposed to in the gap the way most 4-3 interior linemen do, the nose tackle in a 3-4 must be ready to take on multiple blockers and maintain his ground. Those are traits that made Washington arguably the best to ever play the position.
"When you're the nose tackle and playing on the center, there's no one [playing across] either guard," Belichick said. "So there are three people who have a clean shot at the nose and that's not really true at any other position. So that player has to be able to play strong on the line of scrimmage against multiple blockers. Most of the time, at least for part of the play, it's against two blockers and you have to have the strength to stay on the line of scrimmage. That's very important at that position."
Since Traylor and Washington played together and enjoyed success in Chicago, there have been inevitable comparisons between the two. Traylor was quick to put an end to that talk.
"I don't think there is any comparison," he said. "He's Ted Washington and I'm Keith Traylor and when you get to comparing what he's done to me and I don't think there's any comparison at all. He's a great 3-4 nose guard and I'm just learning the position. So no, there's no comparison at all."
The two have talked a few times since Traylor became a Patriot back at the end of March. Washington shared some tips with his former teammate and Traylor hopes to speak with him again once his first weekend of practice is completed. Traylor added that he did not speak with Washington before he signed, waiting instead to finalize his deal with New England and seek advice later.
"He told me I was going to like it and like the people around me and I trust his judgment," Traylor said. "So far he hasn't been wrong."
If that changes, Belichick, as is usually the case, put a plan in place. He used his first selection in April to take what he hopes will be his nose tackle of the future in former Miami standout Vince Wilfork. The Patriots were thrilled he remained available at No. 21, but as Belichick said on Friday it's far too early to determine what kind of role the youngster will have in the 2004 defense.
Evaluating line play during a non-contact mini-camp is one of the toughest chores for even experienced coaches. But it seems more than likely that Wilfork will need some time to learn the pro game, despite his considerable college experience playing in a two-gap set over the center, before he's ready to fill the void. Until then, the Patriots will rely on the next best thing to Washington – Traylor.