Draft Day Becoming Less Significant For Patriots

Bob George
April 6, 2002 at 4:52 pm ET

In Foxborough, it’ll be the Bore Room, not the War Room.?

Ho-hum. Need? Hah. Three key words of the day for the Patriots on Draft Day: “best”, “athlete”, “available”. Yawn. Let the other teams stress out over trading down and trying to hash out whether a guy is a Chris Samuels or a Chris Canty.

Why should the Patriots bother to worry about Draft Day? The Foxborough Free Agent Foundry is producing another surplus haul in ’02. It is like an assembly line. UFAs with designs on becoming instant winners are running to Foxborough faster than Porsches are driven out of the factory in Stuttgart.

You’d think that Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli had maxed out on their skill and luck from ’01. All the chips cashed for the Patriots in ’01. All the pieces fell into place. All the breaks went the way of the men of the red, white and blue.

And yet, here they go again, restocking the team with another crop of athletes who fit their bill exactly. Hard workers. Hungry guys with a burning desire to win. Middle-tier players. Inexpensive. Guys who’ll do exactly what the coach will tell them to do.

The Patriots were in great shape to begin with going into this offseason. They were one of the very few teams to win a championship and be under the salary cap. According to PatsFans.com capologist, Miguel Benzan, the Patriots are $3.227 million under the 2002 projected salary cap, and this is literally a “right up to the minute” figure. The Patriots have already begun to address areas of need, and have filled them with proven veterans instead of unproven rookies.

And as most NFL head coaches will tell you, veterans win championships, not rookies. The Patriots are continuing the formula that brought them a Vince two months ago. And by all indications, the Patriots are once again all aces.

Literally every free agent signing fills a need, and replaces someone who is either gone or soon will be gone.

Out: Terry Glenn, In: Donald Hayes

Hayes is the one major signing by the Patriots, the only player in the “upper-tier” region. Hayes is Tony Simmons with talent, literally: same college, tall, fast. With Glenn now gone to Green Bay, Hayes gives the Patriots a solid player to start opposite Troy Brown, with David Patten likely moving to the old slot position Brown used to have. Tom Brady has already had some pitch-catch sessions with Hayes, and so far, so good. Hayes gives the Patriots a tall wideout, and some experts have referred to Hayes as a “poor man’s Keyshawn Johnson”. With his speed, he will give the Patriots what his former Badger teammate couldn’t – the ability to run correct patterns, deep routes, and make difficult catches against tall cornerbacks.

Out: Patrick Pass, In: Scott Dragos

Pass might stick as a kickoff returner. But Dragos, who spent time here as a rookie free agent some four years ago, put in some solid years with the Giants and Chicago. There may not be enough room for three fullbacks, and Marc Edwards would appear to have a lock on the starting job. Dragos gives the Patriots added depth at the position, and may make Pass expendable.

Out: Matt Stevens, In: Chris Hayes

Pillage of the Jets Part I: Hayes is a special teams veteran, much like Larry Izzo. With Stevens gone to Houston in the expansion draft, Hayes figures to provide depth at the safety position, and likely be prime free safety backup to Tebucky Jones. Hayes is a former Belichick protégé, which naturally makes him appealing to the current Patriot brain trust. Hayes represents a good, safe signing, and a quality player to plug into unglamourous roles on the team.

Out: Brandon Mitchell, In: Rick Lyle

Mitchell hasn’t officially left the team, but it is believed that he will head home to Houston sometime soon. Pillage of the Jets Part II: Lyle always seemed to look good against the Patriots (as did Bobby Hamilton and Anthony Pleasant). Now, Lyle reunites with Belichick and the aforementioned former Jets. Lyle, the same age as Hamilton, will give Richard Seymour a solid veteran counterpart down low, and can also play end if needed. Lyle’s specialty is run stoppage, which is even better news for Seymour.

Out: Hakim Akbar, In: Rob Kelly

Kelly, brought in by way of New Orleans, will perhaps provide backup help for Lawyer Milloy and give aid to special teams. Akbar, who suffered through a rough 2001 season marked by brushes with the law, recently hooked on with Houston. Kelly is one of several free agents the Patriots have brought in who is recovering from injuries. The Patriots may still want to investigate the strong safety position in the draft, for depth reasons only.

Out: Rod Rutledge, In: Christian Fauria

Despite Rutledge making strides as a blocking tight end, his inability to make tough catches helped spell his way out of Foxborough. Rutledge has not officially left the team, but he doesn’t figure in the team’s future plans. Fauria labored for several years up in Seattle, and is projected as an upgrade as a pass catcher who could likely compete for the starting job over Jermaine Wiggins. Fauria is also a prior injury problem, but overall represents a nice pickup for the Patriots. In obtaining Fauria, the Patriots passed on more pricey but more talented tight ends like Ken Dilger and Freddie Jones.

Out: Either Arther Love or Jabari Holloway, In: Cam Cleeland

If Cleeland is fully recovered from his Achilles heel problems, this guy might be the steal of the 2001 free agent pool. For many years a Saint with lots of potential, Cleeland will have to stick if he is healthy and in top form. With Cleeland, Fauria, Wiggins, Love and Holloway in camp, one or two of these guys will have to go. The 2001 draftees will both stick if one of the two free agents happens to wind up on injured reserve or out for a less extended time.

Out: Terrence Shaw, In: Tom Knight

Terrell Buckley is trying to go to where he can play more, and the Patriots don’t seem to mind. In procuring Knight, the Patriots get a former Cardinal with a decent record starting opposite Anaeas Williams for many years. Knight, a former first round pick of Arizona, will likely compete with the aging Otis Smith for the right cornerback spot, and take over nickel back duties. Injuries are also an issue with Knight, which hampered his progress out in Arizona. Shaw was let go by the Patriots shortly after the season ended, and was picked up recently by the Raiders.

Out: Bryan Cox, In: Ryan Phillips

If any position needs to be addressed in the 2002 draft for the Patriots, it has to be linebacker. The team is really thin on depth at this position, especially if Andy Katzenmoyer calls it a career. With a disgruntled Cox leaving to go to New Orleans and Roman Phifer not yet signed, Phillips will come in and back up the starters like he did in Indianapolis. Phillips is no one real special, as the Colts were certainly not known for their defensive prowess. Using the first pick the Patriots get on a linebacker makes a lot of sense.

Out: Riddick Parker, In: Steve Martin

Pillage of the Jets Part III: The Patriots have a new wild and crazy guy to replace Cox. Seriously, the Patriots now have great veteran depth at the down lineman position, with Lyle and Martin in the fold and Willie McGinest returning. If Belichick sticks with the 4-3, the starters could be Hamilton, Lyle, Martin and Pleasant, all former Jets. That won’t happen, of course, with Seymour around. What was said earlier about Lyle may actually apply to Martin regarding Seymour, as Lyle may be more of a situational guy now that Martin is coming here. All in all, the Patriots are secure on the defensive line, and really don’t need to touch the position in the draft unless somehow they trade up and Tennessee’s John Henderson or North Carolina’s Julius Peppers are still on the board.

All in all, the Patriots have no flaming needs to address in the draft, and linebacker is a flicker at best. Depth at tight end, secondary (if Leonard Myers and Brock Williams are able to contribute) and defensive front are secure. Perhaps a few offensive tackles would be prudent, as well as a quarterback who projects out as a future third stringer.

With a trade of Drew Bledsoe still hanging in the balance, the Patriots can still aspire to draft higher than 32nd. In all likelihood the Patriots will be looking at BAA as early as the third round and afterward. The Patriots can use the draft to bring in players who they can groom to move in when veterans like Lyle, Martin, Pleasant, Hamilton and Smith cannot play at peak levels anymore.

Don’t get us wrong. The Patriot War Room will not consist of bored gentlemen.

But Belichick and Pioli seem to have this free agent thing down pretty well. At least until it’s time to put the pads back on for keeps in September, the Patriots still look as ever the solid, winning organization they’ve become.

Heck, the Patriots will have probably signed three more linebackers come draft day. Who knows.

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