> After onePatriot literally dropped the ball in the critical late stages of last year'sAFC Championship Game loss to the Colts, New England overhauled its widereceiver corps. The Pats dealt second- and seventh-round picks to Miami forreturner/receiver Wes Welker last March¬†5, then signed free agents Donte'Stallworth (Saints) and Kelley Washington (Bengals) a week later. That was allprelude to the bargain swap of the century, on the second day of the Aprildraft: New England's acquisition of five-time Pro Bowl wideout Randy Moss fromthe Raiders for a fourth-round pick. Moss then volunteered to take a$6.25¬†million pay cut as part of his effort to win that elusive firstring.
The running gamehas also been tweaked, though not nearly as much as the passing attack. CoreyDillon is gone, leaving the rushing load to second-year back Laurence Maroney,who had off-season surgery on his right shoulder and wore a red noncontactjersey for the first three weeks of training camp. In typical Patriots fashion,Maroney downplays his newfound prominence. "I'm just a little piece of theclub," he says, "a small part."
On the other sideof the ball, the addition of former Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas, who wasconsidered by many the gem of the 2007 free-agent class, will buttress aNew¬†England defense that ranked sixth overall in 2006. The 6' 2",270-pound Thomas was prized for his versatility, and he is scheduled to startat inside linebacker, allowing Mike Vrabel to slide back to his natural outsidespot. And with franchised cornerback Asante Samuel finally rejoining the teamon Monday despite being unable to reach a long-term deal, the one majorquestion on defense throughout camp has been resolved.
> The extremewideout makeover appears to be a delayed effort to make amends to Tom Brady forgetting rid of Deion Branch, his favorite target and one of his best friends inthe league. Brady called his ceaseless fretting over the receiver's uncertainstatus before Branch was dealt to the Seahawks last September "a big mentaldrain," and Brady initially struggled to develop chemistry with Branch'sreplacements.
Newcomer RecheCaldwell picked up some of Branch's slack, leading the team in receptions (61)and receiving yards (760) and playing well in the postseason--until a bad dayat the office in the AFC title game. Three miscues stand out: The first camelate in the third quarter, when Caldwell dropped a sure touchdown pass thatwould've given the Patriots a 28-21 lead. (Jabar Gaffney's balletic catch inthe back of the end zone on the next play took Caldwell off the hook.) Thesecond, another drop, came midway through the fourth quarter with the scoretied at 28, the Patriots in the red zone and Caldwell wide-open. The third, along incompletion, came inside of a minute to play and seemed to be the resultof a miscommunication between Caldwell and Brady.
Rapport figuresto be a problem again in '07 as Brady breaks in this new crop of widereceivers. While the additions of Moss, Stallworth and Welker give thePatriots, in theory, the NFL's most dangerous offense, the unit has had fewreps together because of injuries. Moss has been sidelined with a balky leftleg for most of training camp, while Stallworth missed a week with a badhamstring. Welker has been healthy, but he and Brady have had trouble gettingon the same page; in one preseason game the team needed four yards for a firstdown, but Welker broke just two yards downfield. "We have a long way togo," says Stallworth. "We all have to learn each other's footballmannerisms."
It may take a fewweeks, but eventually that will happen. Last season Gaffney didn't join theteam until Oct.¬†9 and caught only 11 passes in the regular season, butcome the playoffs he emerged as Brady's top target, with a team-high 21 grabsand two touchdowns. Indeed, he became the first player in league history tohave consecutive playoff games with at least eight catches and 100 yards in thesame postseason.
No matter who hisreceivers are, the success of the offense all comes back to Brady, who excelsin whatever situation is put in front of him. The quarterback rarely locks inon a single target and is adept at spreading the ball around, reducing the needfor a true No.¬†1 receiver. Of the Patriots' top seven pass catchers a yearago, only two were wideouts.
Furthermore, ashe proved last week, Brady has a singular ability to focus on the task at hand.Despite taking two cross-country flights in the previous 48 hours to be inCalifornia after the birth of his son, John, and missing two days of practice,Brady turned in a sterling performance in his final preseason tune-up,completing 17 of 22 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns in a win atCarolina.
Stallworth,Welker and Washington each caught three balls in that game, but Moss was stillsidelined. When he returns, the possibilities are endless.--Andrew Lawrence
COACH BILLBELICHICK (111-81 in NFL), eighth season with Patriots
RANDY MOSS (NewAquisition)
DONTE' STALLWORTH(New Aquisition)
HT 6' 4"WT315
HT 6' 4"
HT 6' 2"
SACKS 4 1/2
SACKS 7 1‚ÅÑ2
SACKS 8 1/2
SACKS 1 1‚ÅÑ2
ADALIUS THOMAS(New Aquisition)
NEW ACQUISITION*2005 College Stats
> 2006 RECORD12-4 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 12/12/11 DEFENSE 5/12/6
9 at N.Y. Jets
16 SAN DIEGO
1 at Cincinnati (M)
14 at Dallas
21 at Miami
4 at Indianapolis
18 at Buffalo
3 at Baltimore (M)
16 N.Y. JETS
29 at N.Y. Giants (S)
NFL rank 3
Opponents' 2006 winning percentage .535
Games against playoff teams 8
(M) Monday (S) Saturday
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ENEMY LINES AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THEPATRIOTS
> No question Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork makeRichard Seymour better, because you need help on a three-man line to dominate.But when we play the Patriots, our offensive coaches say Seymour's the one guythey game-plan around because he can knife between linemen into the backfieldand stop the run as well as get at the passer. . . . The Patriots added a moreimportant player than Randy Moss or Adalius Thomas in the off-season: WesWelker will be Tom Brady's new Troy Brown. I bet Welker catches 90 balls. . . .I love Laurence Maroney--assuming his shoulder is O.K. No young back in theleague can break tackles with leg power like Maroney. . . . Give Bill Belichickcredit for taking a bunch of dimeback defensive backs like Ellis Hobbs andturning them into a good secondary.
THE KING 500
With a career-high 10¬†interceptions last year,the 26-year-old Samuel was easily the best cornerback not to make the Pro Bowl.Though his total tied Champ Bailey's for tops in the league, Samuel was passedover for Hawaii in favor of the Bronco. But while Bailey sat at home during theplayoffs, Samuel snared two more picks, against the Jets and the Colts, andreturned both for touchdowns.
TOM CROKE/ICON SMI
A master of underneath routes, Welker should help move thechains.