By: Bob George/BosSports.net
July 21, 2003

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FOXBOROUGH -- The training camp venue may be different, but many things about the Patriots in July remain the same.

And in a year with ten, count 'em, ten draft picks coming to town, given huge salary cap issues with Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy, the fact that all ten are signed before the start of training camp represents another miracle pulled off by guys who seemingly work salary cap miracles each year. Thanks to the great work of Jack Mula and Andy Wasynczuk, all ten draftees are in the fold and are ready to begin life in the NFL for real when everyone reports to Gillette Stadium on Wednesday.

It's really quite amazing. Some folks thought that Bill Belichick would trade down to unload draft picks, making for fewer warm bodies to sign by July. The Patriots went in with twelve picks, made ten, and signed them all. The Patriots have shown a long-term propensity to handle personnel in ways which should make Red Auerbach stand up and cheer.

At the epicenter of the mass signings is top pick Ty Warren, the huge defensive tackle from Texas A&M selected at 14 by the Patriots in the first round. Warren is in the fold for six years and $20 million. His deal includes "escalators" (as do many of the rookie deals) which provide for balloon payments at the end of his contract for good performances now. In the ever-expanding medium that is "salary cap creativity", Mula and Wasynczuk have been able to squeeze every dollar out of available cap space and still be able to keep the core of the team intact while adding on where needed.

These ten guys figure to be here a while. Second round picks Eugene Wilson and Bethel Johnson got five-year deals. Fourth rounders Dan Klecko and Asante Samuel were locked up for four years each. Fifth rounder Dan Koppen is in the fold for four years. Sixth rounder Kliff Kingsbury will stay for three years. Seventh round picks Spencer Nead and Ethan Kelley got three-year deals, but perhaps the most intriguing pick of them all, seventh rounder Tully Banta-Cain of California, got a four-year deal, not common amongst low draft picks in terms of length.

Now, the fun begins. What to do with them, what can they do, and will this help enhance Belichick's checkered history of draft picks?

Signing the guys was one thing. Amazing as it was, whether they pan out or not will be what everyone remembers. For all the great work Mula does, nobody thinks of him when the Patriots are in a playoff stretch drive. Belichick will always be the man on the hot seat when it comes to judging his ability to judge talent, and this is an area which still has yet to catch up with his ability to manage talent, especially defensive talent.

Many experts are hailing the lower rounds as superior, and the top picks as good to average. What will make or break this draft, like it or not, is how Warren performs, and to a lesser extent, Klecko and Banta-Cain. The top priority of this offseason for the Patriots was to upgrade both run defense and pass rush, and those three players will spend the most time under the microscope.

Warren, the best player Belichick was able to obtain in the first round which satisfied a huge need, is being sized up at both nose guard and end. With the anticipated switch to a base 3-4 defense, and with Roosevelt Colvin in the fold and seemingly sending Tedy Bruschi to the "irrelevant" list (translation: suddenly a deep linebacker corps), all attention in summer camp will be on the defensive line, and who plays where. Warren will be the focal point of Patriot Nation scrutiny.

The possible combinations are numerous, which is good for Belichick and Romeo Crennel if there are several of them which work out. The one lingering problem in reconciling this issue is the absence of a true nose tackle (Chad Eaton, we hardly knew ye) lurking out there. Belichick will try and "create" one from a group that includes Warren, Klecko, and possibly Jarvis Green or Richard Seymour.

Like Banta-Cain, Klecko looms as a huge X-factor and a prototypical "steal" of the draft. The son of former Jet Sack Exchange icon Joe Klecko, how well the younger Klecko does may prove critical to the fortunes of the 2003 Patriots. Considered a hard worker and a good learner, that combined with genetics made Klecko attractive to Belichick. Klecko is undersized (more so than the other candidates), but his work ethic may pull him through and help him become a major force.

Moving Seymour to the outside sets up some delicious possibilities for the Patriots if he isn't needed inside. You would then have Colvin, Seymour and Willie McGinest as blue chip pass rushers for offensive coordinators to deal with. Before you dismiss McGinest, consider that it was Chris Slade's presence that made McGinest the great rusher he was in the mid 1990s. Once Slade, a below-average pass defender, was rendered useless when defenses started peppering his area with screen passes, McGinest's pass rushing ability lessened proportionately. Adding more rushers to the mix sets McGinest up for a monster season, if he is still young enough to produce at his previous high levels.

With a deep linebacker corps (so deep that in addition to Bruschi possibly relegated to the bench, Roman Phifer is being moved to the inside) and the ends pretty well covered (you can include Bobby Hamilton in the end mix), it pretty much comes down to how well Warren or Klecko do in learning the nose guard position. If either of these two gentlemen, or Green, can play at least competently enough to slow running attacks down and allow the pass rushers to do their thing, the Patriots will have more than accomplished their major offseason goals.

This is not to render men like Wilson, Johnson and Samuel irrelevant. It's just that all the focus will be on the switch to 3-4 and how well it works.

Wilson needs to become the next Otis Smith and not the next Leonard Myers. Johnson needs to become the next Troy Brown and not the next Tony Gaiter. But these are mere sidebars in relation to the all-important defensive line situation.

Answering all the questions is fun enough. But at least the questions can be asked. One question that won't be asked is "Woe is us, what if Andy W can't sign all these guys?"

They're all here. Let the pleasant problems begin.

And the scrutiny of Bill Belichick the GM heats up once again. Have a great summer, coach.


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