By: Ian Logue/PatsFans.com
July 07, 2004

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Before the start of the 2002 campaign, Bill Belichick did his best to show his team just how tough it would be to repeat as champions.

He brought in the likes of former Celtics great Bill Russell to try and help them understand what it's like to be the team everyone is circling on their schedules. It was considered at the time to be a brilliant move by a coach that is becoming a legend here in New England, but in the end it didn't matter after the Patriots missed the postseason that year finishing the season at 9-7.

Needless to say there won't need to be any inspirational speeches this year.

The experience of winning it all and then not even having the chance to make a title defense will likely be fresh in the minds of the New England Patriots heading into this season.

With just a couple of weeks remaining before training camp opens in Foxboro, PatsFans.com takes a quick look at each position.

DEFENSIVE LINE

In the salary cap era of the NFL, a Superbowl title generally leads to offseason changes and the Patriots have certainly made some. They lost defensive tackle Ted Washington, who was a major piece in the middle of New England's defensive line last season, to free agency. They let Bobby Hamilton depart as well.

But the trend since their disappointing 2002 season has been to get younger and faster on defense, and they're doing just that.

They drafted Vince Wilfork in the first round, adding a 6'2" 325-pound presence up front. Continuing the youth movement is Ty Warren, who with a full season under his belt is also expected to make even more of a contribution this season. Two year veteran Jarvis Green is on the rise, and the Pats also have veterans like free agent pick-ups Keith Traylor and Rodney Bailey to compliment All-Pro Richard Seymour. Second round pick Marquise Hill is also expected to compete for playing time.

LINEBACKERS

Not known for making big free-agent splashes during the offseason, cheers rang out throughout New England at the announcement of the signing of linebacker Roosevelt Colvin over a year ago. The veteran had finished with 10.5 sacks in 2002, and the idea of the Patriots having a player of Colvin's calibur to give them a much-needed pass rush left New England fans foaming at the mouth.

Then when Colvin went down with a freak hip injury no one could have imagined that the Patriots could have withstood his loss. However veterans Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson, Willie McGinest, Roman Phifer, and Mike Vrabel all stepped up in his absence and this group didn't miss a beat. Word during the offseason has been that Colvin appears on his way back, and should he fully recover it would simply be like a bonus offseason acquisition that they didn't need to make. Matt Chatham and Larry Izzo rotated in and out of the line-up last season and have been solid on special teams, giving them added depth. Second-year player Tully Banta-Cain's stock is on the rise as well.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

It seems like a lifetime ago that the Patriots released safety Lawyer Milloy, a move that at the time seemed like it could have devastated the New England defensive backfield. Fortunately free agent Rodney Harrison stepped in and helped everyone forget all about it, making plays all season long along with ferocious hits. His influence rubbed off on rookie Eugene Wilson who left many lasting impressions on opposing offensive players.

They also saw rookie Asante Samuel make great strides at cornerback with the likes of Tyrone Poole along with All-Pro Ty Law to learn from. Free agent acquisition Jeff Burris will also give them added experience at corner, while published reports have said rookie Gus Scott looked good at the safety position during minicamp.

The topic of discussion this offseason has been Law's future in New England. After his public comments against Belichick in which he called his coach a "liar", it appeared he was on his way out of town. But despite his tirades in the media, when the team gathered for their mandatory minicamp in June the veteran kept quiet and appeared resigned to the fact that he'll be in a Patriots uniform this season. That's not to say that an injury to a starting CB for another team couldn't open the door for New England to be offered a deal they can't refuse. But make no mistake, with two-years remaining on his deal Belichick holds Law's future in his hands. Unfortunately for Law unless something crazy happens he's not going anywhere and will need to play at a high level again this season if he hopes to get the outrageous money he's looking for in free agency as the team will likely part ways with him after this season. The only problem is Law hasn't been able to put together back-to-back outstanding seasons during his entire career.

QUARTERBACKS


Two Superbowl Championships and Two Superbowl MVP's round out Brady's Resume.
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What else can you say? Quarterback Tom Brady has taken New England by storm since leading the team to their first ever title in 2001, and yet another last season. Two Superbowl MVP's and two fourth quarter championship winning drives have now been added to his young resume. The amazing thing is he's only going to be 27 in August, and seems like he's only getting better. He finished 3rd in the MVP ballots last season but sent home the two players that finished ahead of him, beating co-MVP's Steve McNair and Peyton Manning during the playoffs. Brady had "minor" shoulder surgery during the offseason, but according to published reports looked solid during the team's mandatory mini-camp last month.

Backing up Brady is Rohan Davey, who spent the offseason lighting up NFL Europe, while Kliff Kingsbury spent his offseason learning the Patriots playbook. While Davey is the favorite to be the #2 guy behind Brady, Kingsbury is expected to make a battle out of it by the time training camp begins.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

After letting Damien Woody and Mike Compton leave via free agency, the Patriots have a young group that will be in charge of opening up holes for the Patriots running game along with protecting Brady. Tackle Matt Light is the man watching Brady's blindside, with second-year center Dan Koppen snapping the football. Joe Andruzzi, Russ Hochstein, and Tom Ashworth all round out the rest of New England's line. Adrian Klemm, Bob Hallen, and Brandon Gorin add depth to this unit, with wrestler Stephen Neal thought by many to be the "dark horse" to break back into the line-up. Neal got everyone's attention during his time in the line-up prior to suffering a season-ending injury and if healthy could be the physical presence the Patriots will need on offense.

RUNNINGBACK

For years if you were in a bar after the game watching the highlights from Sunday's action, fans likely talked about what it would have been like if Cincinnati Bengals runningback Corey Dillon would have come and played in New England.

Well, what was once thought to be far-fetched is now a reality. Belichick acquired the disgruntled Bengal and gave him what he's always wanted, a chance to play for a winning franchise. Dillon's been saying all the right things and has been relatively quiet thus far in New England, and with a talented quarterback like Brady running the offense could end up giving the Patriots a running game that opposing offensive coordinators will spend late nights trying to prepare for.

Complimenting Dillon will be Kevin Faulk, who is in his sixth season with the team and will again likely be the third down back, with Mike Cloud and 4th-round pick Cedric Cobbs battling for a spot on the roster.

RECEIVERS


David Givens led the team with 6-receiving touchdowns last year and appears poised to have an even bigger year this season.
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Deion Branch wowed fans during training camp two years ago, and after hitting a rookie wall in 2002 had a terrific 2003, including a 10-catch 143-yard performance in the Superbowl. Branch led the team in receptions last season with 57-catches for 803-yards, and has taken over the #1 role. Troy Brown remains a reliable target for Tom Brady, as the veteran has always had a habit of being open with the game on the line.

Also on the rise is wide receiver David Givens, who led the team with 6-receiving touchdowns last year. 2nd-year speedster Bethel Johnson stretched the field last year and has become a viable deep threat, and should David Patten return from injury he would round up what could be a pretty explosive group.

At tight end the Patriots have former first round pick Daniel Graham who many feel may finally be ready to shine this season, along with Christian Fauria and rookie draft choice Ben Watson. Fauria has a reputation of being open down on the goal line, while Watson is said to have wide-receiver speed to compliment his size and according to published reports looked impressive during mini-camp.

SPECIALISTS

It wasn't until near the end of the 2003 campaign that fans learned that kicker Adam Vinatieri was being hampered by a back injury which caused his numbers to dip last season. But despite the injury it didn't stop him from hitting when it counted, as the kicker nailed his second championship clinching kick. Vinatieri has said he feels much better and is expected to be healthy this season.

The Patriots brought in free agent punter Josh Miller who is expected to handle the punting duties after the team watched Ken Walter struggle last season. Miller averaged 41.9 yards per punt last year for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

OUTLOOK

While camp hasn't officially started yet it's tough not to be optimistic. The team has made major upgrades on offense and despite several key free agent losses have quite a few bright spots on defense. The only real question will be how New England's young defensive line will perform, although Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel have a history of putting their players in position to make plays.

Can the team repeat? History has shown that it's certainly a difficult road. But there are so many veterans on this team who have experienced watching from the sidelines just one year after being on top of the NFL. The pressure will be on once the season begins, but Brady's no stranger to pressure and Dillon has plenty to prove carrying the football. With the best coaching staff in the league intact for at least one more year, the players will be put in position to win every game. The question now will be whether or not they can get it done, a question that won't be answered until September.

2004 PREDICTION: 11-5


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