Next in a series of articles on the 2001 positional analysis of the New England Patriots. Today’s feature: Defensive line
Pardon me, while all of us who wanted the Patriots to draft David Terrell are still spitting crow out of our mouths.
This column championed Bill Belichick to make Georgia’s Richard Seymour the six pick in last year’s draft, figuring that Texas’ Leonard Davis would not be available. That opinion was also based on the assumption that Michigan’s Terrell would also be off the board.
Surprise. Cleveland took Florida’s Gerard Warren and Cincinnati took Missouri’s Justin Smith. That ensured that Terrell would fall at least to six.
But Belichick stood firm and took the defensive tackle, as Patriot Nation howled in disgust. While Belichick was being vilified from Madawaska to Milford, Belichick gently silenced the angry masses by nabbing free agents David Patten from Cleveland and Charles Johnson from Philadelphia. As the Patriots broke camp, Seymour got hurt and had to miss the 2001 season opener at Cincinnati, which turned into a 23-16 loss that Seymour could have prevented if he had been there to shut down Corey Dillon.
When the season ended, there were two lasting impressions of Seymour. The first is him throwing Rams’ All-Pro guard Adam Timmerman to the turf as if he were a piece of paper, on his way to sacking Kurt Warner. The second is Seymour with his arms around a sobbing Willie McGinest, as both men became champions. Seymour was calm, cool and comforting, while McGinest looked half Curtis Martin and half Dick Vermeil.
Simply put, the Patriots roped in a prime stud in Seymour, and barring him becoming the next Kenneth Sims, he looks to be a fixture as a Patriot down lineman for years to come. One could reasonably expect that someday he will set Patriot standards for longevity at that position, knocking Julius Adams off the pedestal he sits on.
To watch Seymour do what he did to Timmerman was absolutely stunning. You had to watch the ESPN Matchup show on Super Bowl XXXVI to see it, it was too hard to pick up from the live game tape. The Patriots drafted Seymour with the intention of him tying up blockers so that the linebackers can stuff running backs near the line of scrimmage. But after seeing Seymour in the Super Bowl and his harassment of Warner, one might wonder if Seymour has some pass rushing to do before his time is up.
Seymour may always continue to be used primarily as a run-stopping force. But Seymour is the new linchpin of the Patriot defensive line, and is second in overall importance to the Patriot defensive scheme of things behind Lawyer Milloy. But given the makeup of the 2001 Patriot defensive line, changes are soon in order thanks to age, salary cap and free agency.
Former Jets Bobby Hamilton and Anthony Pleasant enjoyed outstanding seasons with the Patriots. The job the Patriot defense did in shutting down the Rams in the Super Bowl will be talked about for years to come, but it was done largely with brains and lack of a fierce pass rush down low. Most of the hard hitting came from the secondary, and not from the defensive line. Hamilton and Pleasant needed to be more smart than strong largely because they are 31 and 34 years of age, respectively.
And then there’s Brandon Mitchell. He is the one remaining player still on the roster from the hideous 1997 Draft (Chris Canty, Sedrick Shaw, Ed Ellis, Damon Denson and their cast of castoffs). The second round pick of that bunch of busts, Mitchell overcame his biggest perceived negative – lousy work ethic – and became a decent down lineman. Mitchell’s biggest contribution as a Patriot was his block of Kris Brown’s field goal in the AFC title game, but he has improved in his overall game and has become a nice compliment in run stoppage with Seymour.
But Mitchell is a free agent. When the free agent priorities are mentioned, the names that prop up are usually Adam Vinatieri, Antowain Smith, Roman Phifer and Bryan Cox. Mitchell may not get the big payday he seeks, if he is looking to break the bank.
McGinest was left unprotected in the expansion draft, but Houston left him alone. McGinest again battled injuries in 2001, and will likely be cut in 2002 unless he agrees to a massive contract restructure (his cap hit of $8.25 million tops the entire Patriot squad). McGinest had a decent Super Bowl despite the near-fatal holding penalty he committed on Marshall Faulk, but his cap hit and fragile body overshadow anything else.
Some draft boards have the Patriots drafting a defensive end with their first pick. Considering the ages of Mitchell and Pleasant, and McGinest’s baggage, that’s not a bad proposition. However, bigger needs might exist at the linebacker position, but we’ll save that for our next article.
The Patriots do need to look at their defensive line real close in 2002, as backups Riddick Parker, David Nugent and Chris Sullivan don’t figure to be starting material. Pleasant and Hamilton are signed through 2003, and both will be graybeards by then. If Mitchell and McGinest are allowed to leave, it leaves the Patriots precariously shallow in this area.
The Patriots should address this area in the first round, if they get additional picks by a Drew Bledsoe trade. But another nice thing that could happen is somehow McGinest sticks around (he is signed through 2006) and takes a pay cut.
Will he? It’s not that far fetched. Unlike Ted Johnson, who may need to go elsewhere to get the playing time he needs, McGinest may be so enamored with being a champion that he might want to bend over backwards to stay if he gets adequate playing time. McGinest is 30, but any help at depth for this gang is most welcome.
If McGinest, Hamilton and Pleasant can hold down the fort at ends, and if Mitchell is allowed to leave, then a first round pick could be spent on a long-term stud inside to compliment Seymour. While logic to draft an end is just as good, having two strong guys down low inside for a long time would be a boon to the Patriot defense. A good reference might be the duo of Santana Dotson and Gilbert Brown, the Packer pair who faced the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI.
The 3-4 versus 4-3 debate may also continue to rage, but right now it is immaterial. The Patriots’ defensive coaching staff is the best in the league right now, and it looks like they can play either unless the 3-4 continues to be susceptible to the run (as in the season finale at Carolina). Belichick and Romeo Crennel seem to know exactly what to do, and the rest of the league won’t forget the shutdown job they laid on the Rams anytime soon.
At least there will be no secrets or misconceptions in 2002. Belichick will draft for defense.
And the search for the next Seymour, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, begins.
Next feature: Linebackers