Next in a series of positional analysis for the 2003 New England Patriots. Today: defensive line.
The Patriots need Ted Washington, and then, maybe they don't.
This is how great the Patriot defensive line was in 2003. Washington went down with an injury in Week 3 against the Jets. In the ensuing six games that he missed, the Patriots were 5-1. And Big Ted was the cornerstone of the new 3-4 Patriot defense, the best run stopper in the league.
Make no mistake, there isn't any card carrying member of Patriot Nation who would like to see Washington walk as a free agent. We say this to emphasize how deep the Patriot defensive line was in 2003, and that to make things work in 2004, some people may have to hit the road just to make sure that nobody is stiffed in the playing time category.
Washington, who turns 36 in April, wants his big payday badly. He figures that it's his last chance at the big bucks, and may opt to stray away from the only championship team he has ever known in order to get the big bucks. In a perfect world, Big Ted stays put, as he enjoyed his one year here in Foxborough a great deal and would love to finish his career here.
Unfortunately, lots of athletes say that they'd love to finish their career with the team they're ready to bolt. This may be the case for the man who has a peak in New Hampshire named after him (he wishes). He gave the Patriots one great year of incredible run stoppage, but one year may be all he gives.
It was an area which needed major addressing in the 2002 offseason. Stopping the run was a major flaw in the Patriots of 2002. Washington was a late acquisition in a trade with Chicago, and his coming to New England was as hailed here as it was decried in the Windy City. The deal worked, as only Clinton Portis of Denver topped the 100-yard mark for opposing running backs.
But Washington was not in the lineup that night in Denver. That was the sixth and final game he missed. Does that make the Patriots more eager to retain him?
Perhaps not. You have draftee Ty Warren waiting in the wings, who probably will someday have the nose tackle position all to himself. Warren, who will be forever known as the man the Patriots got for Drew Bledsoe, played as a backup end along with Jarvis Green. If Washington is allowed to leave, Warren may be next in line for the nose tackle job, though Washington has no backup listed on the depth chart.
New England employed a 4-3 defense in the first five games without Washington. Against the Redskins, Richard Seymour and Rick Lyle started inside. Against the Titans, Giants, Dolphins and Browns, it was Seymour and Warren. The Patriots went back to a 3-4 against Denver, but Dan Klecko started at nose tackle. Since Seymour is a rock on the right end, and since either Green or Bobby Hamilton will handle left end, Warren would be the likely candidate to assume the middle position if Washington walks.
We emphasize Washington only because he really controls the direction of the 2004 Patriot defensive line. His staying or leaving is the biggest issue regarding this deep and talented bunch. There are only a few issues which don't affect Washington, but the bottom line is that the Patriots likely should plan next season without Washington on the team simply because the prevailing feeling is that he wants someone to show him the money now that he finally has a ring.
Anthony Pleasant and Lyle will be long shots to come back. Lyle turns 33 next Thursday, and Pleasant turned 36 a few weeks back. Both men spent a lot of inactive time down the stretch. Neither man is signed beyond 2003. Both men could retire, and both men have been mentioned by some as good coaching prospects.
Klecko was an intriguing rookie who was living a dream cloud season until he was exposed in the Denver game. He was inactive in the second Miami game and the last two playoff games. His small size was no match for Portis and the huge Bronco offensive line. He did have some usage as a short yardage blocker, but by Super Bowl time, Seymour was filling that bill. His scrappy persona makes him too valuable to jettison, he just needs to find his niche on a team which certainly must have a role for this talented but smallish (for his position) lad.
The way things are going, the defensive line of the future is probably Green, Warren and Seymour. Seymour is a building block who just went to his second Pro Bowl, and will be a Patriot for as long as he can coexist with Bill Belichick. Green had a monster postseason, a benefactor of a defense which knows exactly how to use him. Warren is the only player other than Washington who has the size to play nose tackle (6-4, 320). If Belichick thinks that this trio is indeed going to start in 2004, Washington will be elsewhere next year for sure.
That leaves Hamilton. He is 33 and also not signed past 2003. But he is a Belichick-type who is vastly underrated and underappreciated. If he can be brought back for backup money, and if he can live with the possibility of backing up Green, he may return. One situation which may affect Hamilton is that Green is signed only through 2004, and Belichick will likely have to decide who to commit several years to, Green or Hamilton. The smart thinking is that if it comes to this, Green will get the years and Hamilton will get the gate. But Hamilton may be retained somehow for depth reasons.
Belichick may look at a free agent to add more depth to this position, if Lyle, Pleasant and Washington are not brought back. But Ethan Kelley, a seventh-round pick last year, is still lurking in the background. Kelley, huge (312 pounds) but not overly big (6-2), could compete for a backup role next year. Given the high quality of last year's draft, keeping Kelley may simply be good karma.
Whatever happens in 2004, Belichick and Scott Pioli deserve a great deal of credit for improving an area which begged for improvement at the end of last season. Warren may not have been the top choice of the Patriots when the draft began, but there is no question that, given some more seasoning and some more time at the nose tackle position, he can step in and provide at least nearly as much run stoppage as Washington did.
Green. Warren. Seymour. Young, young, and young. Two goodies and a Pro Bowler. Enjoy the big bucks, Big Ted, and it's too bad that you don't crave a second ring.
Next installment: linebackers.
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