By: Bob George/
April 27, 2003

Patriots practice report: Brian Hoyer struggles during OTA session
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Belichick mum on Brady and Gronk OTA absences
No Brady or Gronk, but plenty of storylines at Patriots OTAs

FOXBOROUGH -- It was always Bob Kraft's wish that the Patriots someday resemble the 49ers.

Hiring former San Francisco defensive coordinator Pete Carroll didn't do the trick. Former 49er boss George Seifert, whom Kraft called first before hiring Carroll, said no thanks to coaching the home towners. About the only leg up on the Niners the Patriots had was a better-looking stadium (and we're talking Foxborough Stadium versus Candlestick, folks).

Things are different today. The Patriots know what it's like to win the whole thing, and now they're trying to maintain that kind of winning feeling much the same way Bill Walsh did. Like Walsh did in the 1980s, Bill Belichick stocked the Patriots with several new players who will fill immediate needs now, and fill off-in-the-distance needs when their time comes.

With few dissentions, Belichick has drawn rave reviews from fellow GMs, draft experts, men who call themselves draft experts, and much of the Nation membership. Given the need areas for the Patriots, and given the dynamics of how this draft unfolded, Belichick scored fairly well on what he did do, and also scored well on what he didn't do.

If Mel Kiper's opinion means anything to you, he gave the Patriots props again and again over the two days. He gave the Patriots an A grade, the only team in the division to earn that grade. Kiper gave the Bills a B and the Dolphins and Jets C's each.

What was it about the draft that made it so good, given the sort of frenetic start on Saturday? Belichick sat by and watched his top defensive line choices all disappear by the time the 13th pick came up. He was forced to "settle" for Ty Warren at 13 (after a one slot trade up with Chicago), and was chastised by some as having botched the draft on Friday when the Jets traded up to 4 to snatch Dwayne Robertson, beating the Patriots to the punch.

When all was said and done, Belichick emerged from the draft with ten selections, and all needy areas well addressed. Belichick came away with four defensive linemen to aid the neediest position of them all. He also plucked two cornerbacks, another area of concern, added to the wide receiver depth, and provided some depth at offensive line. "Value pick" was the theme of the two days, but some of the "value" the Patriots got seems to be quite good.

And by not trading up to 4 (or even to 2 with Detroit), Belichick was able to take what he got later on in the draft. The Jets got Robertson, but not much else in terms of quality talent in giving up two first rounders to draft the big man from Kentucky. The Patriots had three more overall picks than the Jets, and a 5-3 edge in picks in rounds 1-4.

The Patriots took three more down linemen to go along with Warren on Day Two. Temple's Dan Klecko, son of former Jet lineman Joe Klecko, was the first pick. The last two picks of the day were two seventh rounders, Tully Banta-Cain from Cal and Ethan Kelley from Baylor. Along with Warren, these guys address the "we have to get younger" mantra from Belichick right away.

How they fit in will be interesting. The Patriots have not had a pure nose tackle since Chad Eaton. Klecko could actually wind up as the nose tackle of the future, with the speedy Warren and Richard Seymour playing outside. Klecko is small for his position, but some liken him to a Zack Thomas type, extrapolated to nose tackle. His work ethic is duly noted, and his pedigree doesn't hurt things one bit. Kelley may compete for a backup nose tackle spot.

Meanwhile, Banta-Cain is a most intriguing pick which has many Patriot fans quite enthused. In this pick, the Patriots have themselves a "tweener" who could become the next Tedy Bruschi. Banta-Cain is too small to play down except in situational pass rush downs, but he could conceivably vie for an outside linebacker spot despite not having good pass rush skills. With the Patriots going 3-4 next year, Banta-Cain serves as a linebacker depth guy the Patriots can definitely use, as well as being another solid pass rush threat.

Cornerback depth was addressed quite well. Otis Smith is aging, Tyrone Poole is not a top-tier free agent signing, and Leonard Myers may have expended his best stuff in August of 2001. Enter Eugene Wilson and Sunday's second pick of the fourth round, Central Florida's Assante Samuel. Wilson is being heralded as "another Ty Law", with skills that befit both zone and man-to-man. Assante has a similar rep, but also has punt return skills to go along with his cover skills.

Meanwhile, Patriot Nation might be drafting letters of apology to poor Bethel Johnson, taken yesterday in the second round. Most of the reports coming in on this guy are lauding his incredible speed (4.3 in the 40), big hands and his home run ball potential. Patriot fans are also remembering very quickly about what they were saying about Deion Branch last year, and tempering their comments about Johnson. Some experts were talking about Johnson in terms of "rising rapidly up most everyone's draft boards", in stark contrast to the harsh commentary emanating yesterday from some reports.

The hometown folk must have been pleased with the selection of BC center Dan Koppen in round five. How he will be used is unclear, but the possibilities are abounding. He could very well supplant fellow Eagle Damien Woody at center, switching the All-Pro to guard. Or, he could be the next Grey Ruegamer. Whatever the case, Koppen is being called an offensive Dan Klecko, which means smallish but mean, nasty, and a fiery spirit. We're not sure the celebrations at Chestnut Hill have died down yet.

The other two picks deal in areas where help wasn't really needed badly, but they might be useful a few years down the road. Quarterback Kliff Kingsbury (R6, Texas Tech) put up great numbers in Lubbock, but has only the supplanting of Damon Huard to possibly look forward to. If nothing else, Kingsbury can take comfort in knowing that the Patriots already have a round six quarterback who, once upon a time, won a Super Bowl MVP. Spencer Nead (R7, BYU) might be nothing more than a replacement for Cam Cleeland at tight end, as Christian Fauria and Daniel Graham will have a stranglehold on the position in 2003 barring injury.

Walsh was heralded for building the foundation of the Super Bowl XXXII and XXIV wins with the 1986 draft. His picks in round four and later all wound up contributing to those two teams, and have more or less set an example for trading down and stocking up on middle/late round picks. In executing this draft strategy, Belichick has set the Patriots up for a return to postseason prominence, and possibly more championships down the road.

With defense as his obvious goal this year, Belichick added depth to every position except safety. Two major problems likely were addressed in this draft, those being run defense (Pats were 31st against the run in 2002) and opponents converting on third and long. If Wilson is a quick learner and can move into the corner spot opposite Law (Wilson will likely begin in nickel packages), it will be nightmarish for opposing quarterbacks. As for Warren, his two-gap ability will be crucial if the Patriots want to reverse what has happened since Priest Holmes of Kansas City exposed this defense in Week 3.

More free agents and undrafted rookies may follow. But for now, Belichick and Scott Pioli can sit back and say that they did what they had to do.

Unless Robertson torches the league, wins Rookie Of The Year and helps bring a Vince to Joisey.