Thursday, September 06, 2001

Free agents provide hope for Patriots




By HOWARD ULMAN
AP Sports Writer

        FOXBORO, Mass. — Troy Brown glanced at the strangers in the New England Patriots' locker room and shook his head.

        “It's just a bunch of new faces,” the wide receiver said. “I think we're much further along than we were last year, but we still have a long way to go.”

        Brown and Drew Bledsoe are the most senior Patriots, both drafted in 1993. They've been through the highs — a Super Bowl trip under Bill Parcells after the 1996 season— and the lows, including a 5-11, last place finish in the AFC East and no playoff berth last year, Bill Belichick's first as coach.

        That was the first season in a rebuilding project after Belichick saw what he inherited from Pete Carroll, who was fired after going 8-8 in his third season, ending the team's three-year playoff run.

        The current 53-man roster includes just 14 players from Carroll's last year. And 25 of those 53 arrived after the 2000 season.

        “We've improved our depth and our talent level,” Belichick said, “but until we put it out on the field Sunday afternoon, that doesn't mean anything, and that's really what it's about, how you perform Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.”

        The most noticeable improvements are at wide receiver and linebacker, where the Patriots added veteran free agents.

        Bert Emmanuel, David Patten, Charles Johnson and Torrance Small join Brown, who led the team with 83 catches last year. That should soften the blow of losing Terry Glenn, suspended for the season for staying away from training camp.

        At linebacker, the additions of Bryan Cox, Mike Vrabel, Roman Phifer and Larry Izzo should help holdovers Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson. They also should lessen the pain of losing Andy Katzenmoyer, facing neck surgery and sidelined for the season.

        “By having a lot of veteran leadership here, it makes the transition easier,” Phifer said.

        The Patriots appear to have improved a running game that ranked 26th in the NFL by signing Antowain Smith, who rushed for 1,124 yards with Buffalo in 1998. For now, he and J.R. Redmond, a third-round pick last year, will share the job, with Kevin Faulk listed as the third-down back.

        Smith “showed he can run with power and he showed he can run with speed,” Belichick said. “I feel like we have two starters at that position.”

        Another new face in the backfield, fullback Marc Edwards, should improve the team's receiving and blocking from that spot.

        But the primary question on offense remains the same: Will the young offensive line keep Bledsoe from having to overuse his limited running skills?

        For now, the starting line for Sunday's opener at Cincinnati figures to be left tackle Matt Light, left guard Mike Compton, center Damien Woody, right guard Joe Andruzzi and right tackle Greg Robinson-Randall.

        But Compton, a free agent from Detroit, was sidelined for all four exhibition games, and Light is a rookie from Purdue who was healthy enough to play only in the last one.

        “I'm just going to go out there and do what I always do, play physical and play 'til the whistle blows,” Light said. “If a bad play comes along, I'm not going to dwell on that.”

        He'll get his first regular-season chance vs. Cincinnati. The second game is at Carolina as the Patriots open against two teams that combined to go 11-21 last season.

        “We've got to get off to a fast start and send a message,” Brown said. “You don't want to be fighting from the bottom up from the start of the season. You win two games on the road, back to back, that's pretty good.”

        Belichick brought in most of the new players, but said it's not his team alone.

        “Those people didn't all just parachute in here and land in Foxboro. I can't say that I personally went out and did the majority of the work on them,” he said.

        “We have a model of what we're looking for and we've tried to build toward that model,” he added. “It is shaped a little bit differently than it was last year. We'll see how that turns out.”

       



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