February 12, 2004
Little Squirts With A Big Future
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
Let's put it this way. If Troy Brown can't crack this group next year, then Tom Brady's run of Super Bowl MVPs won't likely continue any time soon. Because someone else on the Patriots will win it, and they likely won't crack six feet in height.
It's a good bet that the Super Bowl probably did nothing to enhance the reputations of Deion Branch and David Givens, who are listed as the two current starting wideouts for the Patriots. Branch made ten catches for 143 yards and a touchdown. Givens had five catches for 69 yards and a touchdown. But nobody will pay too much attention to all that because Brady completed a Super Bowl record 32 passes and won the game MVP award.
And that's just the way things are. Branch and Givens get dirty, while Brady gets Bridget Moynahan and another new Cadillac to drive her around in.
The one good thing is that Branch and Givens get the same ring that Brady gets. Make no mistake, Brady knows darned well that without the great work of those two guys, there is no new Caddy or a new ring. The trouble is, most people outside of the Patriot fan base look at Branch and Givens and make with the \"who dey\" stuff.
And don't be surprised if you discover that there are more people than you think who don't immediately know who Brown is.
United Way mavens know, which explains his instantly classic \"Bingo! We win again!\" outburst at the victory rally last Tuesday. Still, the most estimable Patriot, the senior member of the team in terms of service to the club, might be caught in another situation which is far worse than some yahoo from East Yahuppetsville, Wyoming, who knows who Ashley Lelie is but not Troy Brown.
Along with Branch and Givens, you have Bethel Johnson. He is the third young gun of the Patriot receiving corps, the fastest of them all, but a year behind Branch and Givens in development. You have veterans Dedric Ward and David Patten, the latter out for most of the year with an injury. You also have a very intriguing free agent signing recently named Marquise Walker, who was a receiver at Michigan when Brady wore the Maize and Blue.
Add to that the fact that Brown's cap number needs to go down, and you wonder if this is it for perhaps your most favorite Patriot. Well, let's see.
It makes even more sense in the Super Bowl. Look at how well Branch did in a seesaw battle which at one time found the Patriots trailing, 22-21.
Givens' recap reads much like Branch. A seventh-rounder out of Notre Dame last year, Givens is slightly more athletic and acrobatic than Branch, who is the faster of the two. In the offseason, Givens dedicated himself to improving his catching skills, and the payoff was big. Sterling Sharpe said on the NFL Playbookshow that Givens was the next star in the league at the wideout position, and was quite adamant in his declaration. It is hard to disagree with that sentiment, but you can lop Branch into that mix as well.
Both of these men \"came of age\" in this their second year. So, is it unreasonable to assume that Johnson will do the same next year? The Texas A&M rookie became better known for his kickoff return skills, but he did catch a 41-yard touchdown bomb in the playoff opener against Tennessee. He is going to be Brady's top deep threat in due time, but Johnson needs also to refine his short game (he had a fumble after a catch in the AFC Championship Game). Right now, Johnson's best asset is speed, and everything else about his game is ordinary to pretty good.
Johnson has probably assured that Patten won't be back. Johnson is a younger and cheaper Patten who just needs to gain more NFL experience to start producing like Patten did. Patten went down in the sixth game of the season and went right to injured reserve. Up to that time, Patten had only nine catches for 140 yards and zero touchdowns. According to PatsFans.com's capologist, Miguel Benzan, Patten's cap figure for 2004 is $1.5 million. Johnson's figure is less than half that amount. Patten is signed only through 2004, so Patten's departure is a near certainty.
One factor which could determine Brown's future is what they decide to do about veterans Ward and J.J. Stokes. The latter was activated rarely during the season, but Ward did play in the postseason for the Patriots. Another factor, though a long shot at best, is the signing of Walker, who gives the Patriots some height at the position (6-2), and it gives Brady some familiarity as well.
But basically it comes down to Brown and his willingness to reduce his cap hit. It right now stands at $5.1 million, and he is no longer the top receiver who is justified in making that kind of money. Brown's cap number would go down to $1.6 million if he were cut after June 1. This is the final year of Brown's contract, so a new 2-3 year deal is not out of the question.
Brown demanded to paid like a top receiver when he became one in 1997. His professionalism would make it seem unconscionable that he would make unreasonable demands on the team. Knowing he is no longer the starter at this time, and knowing further his value to the team as well as his stature in the long continuum of time, it would seem that Brown would return for 2004, albeit at a lower price. Patriot fans who aren't ready to bid Brown farewell should be pleased at this possibility.
The tight end position doesn't figure to change next year. Christian Fauria will enter the final year of his contract, but Daniel Graham is signed through 2006. Fauria remains the better receiver and Graham the better blocker. But Graham's 33-yard catch in the Super Bowl could act as a springboard to bigger and better things for this first round draft pick with hands of stone. Fauria is too good at catching touchdowns to be cast off before his contract is up.
If Graham starts catching passes like a first-rounder, combined with the wide receiver corps that is now beginning to bloom like a Pasadena rose, Brady may dream less about Bridget and more about a pass completion percentage that approaches seventy percent. The potential for this group is simply stunning. Branch and Givens finished the season so well that the anticipation for these men and their contributions in 2004 might be as great as finding out who shot J.R.
So, are you less than six feet? Can you run fast, work hard and elude bigger defensive backs? Looking for work as an NFL wide receiver?
Simple. Pick up the phone. Call Gillette Stadium and ask for Scott Pioli. Bingo. You win.
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