People squawked when Ben Coates, Bruce Armstrong and Zefross Moss were told to hit the road.
Steve Israel may not get much more than a peep. He should get a great big cock-a-doodle-doo.
It’s very hard to sit here and complain if Bill Belichick allows Israel to walk. Belichick has done a great job holding onto Patriot free agents, given the fact that the Patriot salary cap is more suffocating than a Hulk Hogan hammerlock. And it’s also a fair thing to say that nobody would allow one of the three who signed to cancel out and walk in exchange for Israel staying on board.
Yet if Israel walks, he stands to leave a far bigger hole than the other three who signed if they had left. Tebucky Jones could have gone in at strong safety. Belichick could table the 3-4 defense a year and play Chris Slade, Ted Johnson and Andy Katzenmoyer at linebacker. The Patriots have a few wide receivers to play with, even with Shawn Jefferson now a Falcon.
If Israel does not come back, the Patriots are faced with having to play either Jones or Kato Serwanga at right cornerback. Given all things that be, this could turn into a huge dropoff if Israel is not retained. It may be such that Patriot Nation will break out in a sad chorus of the “Jimmy Hitchcock Blues” halfway into the season.
Israel, when healthy, proved to be a solid compliment to Ty Law at the corner. His coverage skills were sound, and is much quicker than either Jones or Serwanga. Israel’s biggest problem is his durability, and the fact that he is a free agent.
So far, Israel has found the pickings slim out there on the open market. The Patriots have notified Israel that he would be tendered only a “minimum level offer”, and would return to the Patriots seemingly as a last resort. It isn’t hopeless, but things right now don’t look good for all Steve Israel fan clubs in the area.
The alternatives are Jones and Serwanga. Jones has been analyzed and picked apart in this column about as often as he has been thrown at when in a ball game. The skinny on Jones is that he is too much of a natural safety, who hits better than he covers. Jones lacks the footwork necessary to turn and cover the fastest receivers in the league, an unfortunate thing given that he was drafted with the idea of blanketing the Keyshawn Johnsons of the world.
Jones may be high on Belichick’s depth chart largely due to both curiosity and necessity. Belichick, himself a defensive backs expert (he was that position coach with the Pats in 1996) may see what he can do with The Great Experiment. Given also the time invested in trying to convert Jones, it may not be prudent to give up on Jones as a cornerback just yet.
Serwanga may prove to be the man who winds up with the job if Israel leaves. Serwanga, who did see some quality time in 1999, should be given every chance in training camp and preseason to try and win the right cornerback job. Though not as quick as Israel, he did show a fairly good cover ability, and has the technique that Jones lacks. A little more seasoning for Serwanga might reveal more than just a “yeah, he’s pretty good” assessment.
The other man on the hot seat in the Patriot secondary is Tony George. The second year man out of Florida should be the favorite to win the starting free safety job. George dazzled Patriot Nation last fall with his ability to hit hard, and played centerfield much better than last year’s starter, 1997 Draft Day Dud Chris Carter. Carter may be valuable only in depth strength. Belichick would be remiss if George isn’t given every chance to be the starter.
It was clear last year that Carter simply isn’t the terrific free safety Pete Carroll or Bobby Grier thought he’d be. They cut Willie Clay in training camp last year in a fit of pique, and Carter became the starter. Though Clay got the worst of the deal languishing in New Orleans, Carter clearly displayed none of Clay’s leadership skills, and lacked the knowledge to effectively play centerfield.
Whatever happens in the secondary, it is incumbent on the Legal Team to play up to the huge contracts invested in their firm.
Lawyer Milloy became the highest paid strong safety in the game. And most people, even those who have heard of Leroy Butler, hail the signing of Milloy as critical for the club. Milloy, the second-leading tackler on the team in 1999, is a fierce hitter, outstanding blitzer and a good instinctive cover man. Though known mainly for his big hits, he is also very adept at helping out on short-to-medium range routes.
Milloy is often looked upon as a defensive catalyst. He can singlehandedly fire up his squad with his monster hits. Any fire Milloy can light under his teammates will be badly needed, but having Belichick as head coach instead of Carroll will help out a bit in this area. Still, the intensity Milloy brings to the table is extremely contagious.
Law made big news this spring. And not by signing a contract.
He said that he would devote a good portion of his offseason at Foxborough, working out with new strength coach Mike Woicik. Law was slated to return to Bob Kersee, whom he trained with last year. This year, he will split his time between Woicik and Kersee. This is seen as a victory for Belichick, as it was the coach’s presence and wishes that swayed Law to spend at least some time in Foxborough.
Law will continue to draw the opponent’s top wideout. He has developed into one of the game’s best cover men, with quick instincts and a keen eye for an opponent’s route. Last year, coaches had a nagging habit of having Law lay off receivers 5-10 yards at the line of scrimmage. Law should play his receivers tight at all times, as he is quick enough to stay with anyone in the league. Opposing quarterbacks seemed to make good hay on Law’s side of the ball when Law laid off his man.
The secondary remains a good unit as long as Jones isn’t in there learning. Serwanga and George deserve to start the 2000 season right now, absent of draftees or free agents Belichick might pluck between now and September.
But the unit is far better if Israel remains on board. Serwanga could back either corner up, while Jones and Carter could back up the safties. You would be left with a secondary that has both talented starters and decent depth.
Now, the question is whether or not Israel finds pickings as slim as Armstrong is. One can only hope, because having Jones as the starting right cornerback just doesn’t make Patriot Nation feel warm and fuzzy inside.
Steve Is Real. T-Buck isn’t.