Pats could be even more talented in 2004

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

Now here's a frightening thought for the other 31 NFL teams out there with
visions of a Super Bowl championship dancing in their heads: As good as they
were in winning the last 15 games they played over the course of the 2003
season, including Super Bowl XXXVIII, the 2004 version of the Patriots may
be even better.

Granted, the Patriots lost sizable figures on each side of the line -
325-pound OG Damien Woody (to Detroit) on offense and 375-pound NT Ted
Washington (to Oakland) on defense - but aside from that, the defending
champions pretty much remain intact.

What's more, it would seem they've taken steps forward in two areas that were
weaknesses by replacing Antowain Smith (now in Tennessee) with six-time
1,000-yard rusher Corey Dillon at running back and Ken Walter (now out of
football) with former Steelers P Josh Miller.

Quarterbacks:If he truly were some sort of mad scientist, as many would have you believe he is, could Patriots head coach Bill Belichick have gone in the laboratory and concocted a quarterback more suited to direct his team's controlled passing attack than Tom Brady? Brady's best attributes remain the intangibles, not the least of which is his quiet poise in pressure situations. At 27, Brady possesses field vision and savvy well beyond his years. Backup Rohan Davey was the Offensive MVP of NFL Europe with Berlin, but there are still major questions as to whether the third-year player would be ready to run this team if needed. Kliff Kingsbury, a 2003 sixth-round draft pick, is No. 3 on the depth chart.Grade: A-minus.

Running backs: The Bengals' problem child steps into what has been the
Patriots' problem area. A three-time Pro Bowler over seven seasons with
Bengals teams that never cracked the .500 plateau, there has never been much
question about Dillon's ability. His attitude? Well, that's another matter,
but a face-to-face interview with Dillon convinced Patriots vice president
of player personnel Scott Pioli and Belichick that the "bad boy" could make
good in New England, and the Patriots dealt a second-round draft pick to the
Bengals to get him. Dillon's presence will allow Kevin Faulk to perform in
the third-down role in which he has so often flourished. The blocking
responsibilities in the backfield fall upon the shoulders of FB Patrick
Pass. Grade: B-minus.

Receivers: All hands on deck. With Troy Brown, Deion Branch, David Givens,
David Patten and Bethel Johnson, there are plenty of wide receivers to
spread the ball around to. Brown's been doubling up as a
reserve cornerback this summer, a development that may allow the Patriots to
save a roster spot in the secondary and retain six wideouts. In Daniel
Graham (2002) and Benjamin Watson (2004), the Patriots have used first-round
draft picks on tight ends in two of the last three years, but the softest
hands at that position still belong to Christian Fauria, a veteran
free-agent pickup from Seattle two years ago. Grade: B.

Offensive linemen: The ultimate compliment to this group is that it toils in
relative anonymity. A fifth-round pick last year, C Dan Koppen quickly
became the man in the middle as Woody was moved to guard. With Woody gone,
Russ Hochstein and Joe Andruzzi will flank Koppen at the OG spots, but
offseason free-agent acquisition Bob Hallen, who can also play center, could
factor in the equation at left guard. OLT Matt Light and ORT Tom Ashworth
are backed up by Brandon Gorin and Adrian Klemm. Klemm has been a major
disappointment since his selection in the second round of the 2000 draft.
Grade: B-minus.

Defensive linemen: With two Pro Bowl appearances in his first three seasons,
DE Richard Seymour has already developed into one of the true elite players
at his position. The Patriots' first-round draft pick last year, Ty Warren,
will line up at the other end. Offseason veteran free-agent pickup Keith
Traylor and 2004 top draft pick Vince Wilfork will see time at nose tackle
in the Patriots' 3-4 alignment. Depth is provided by the likes of DE Jarvis
Green, DT Dana Stubblefield and second-round draft pick Marquise Hill, who
played defensive end at LSU. Dan Klecko, an energetic fire hydrant of a
second-year man, will see time on the line, at linebacker and at fullback in
short-yardage and goal-line situations. Grade: B.

Linebackers: Most were surprised when this area wasn't addressed in the
draft, so it will be left for 30-something 'backers Roman Phifer, Tedy
Bruschi, Ted Johnson and Willie McGinest to continue to sack the aging
process. If the overachieving Bruschi isn't the poster boy for this unit,
Mike Vrabel is. While the converted Klecko will be expected to contribute at
inside linebacker, it is hoped that fellow second-year man Tully Banta-Cain
will be able to chip in at outside linebacker. Larry Izzo and Matt Chatham
provide depth and are bangers on special teams. Grade: B-plus.

Defensive backs: The Patriots can only hope that LCB Ty Law is as disruptive
to opponents during the season as he attempted to be to his own organization
in the offseason, when he whined about his contract. That said, Law remains
one of the premier corners in the game. At the other CB spot, Tyrone Poole
was a pleasant surprise for most of the 2003 season, but his play waned late
last year, and fourth-round draft pick Asante Samuel is nipping at his
heels. Lawyer Milloy's release five days before last year's opener caused an
uproar at the time, but by season's end the play of hard-hitting SS Rodney
Harrison and converted rookie CB Eugene Wilson, who started at free safety,
had New Englanders forgetting about Milloy. The team added more youth to the
secondary with the selections of DBs Guss Scott and Dexter Reid in the third
and fourth rounds, respectively. Scott, however, has been placed on injured
reserve with a knee injury. Grade: A.

Special teams: With an ailing back, PK Adam Vinatieri was
uncharacteristically undependable during the 2003 regular season, when he
missed 8-of-17 field goals he attempted from 30 yards and beyond. But there
still isn't a better pressure kicker in the game. For the second time in
three seasons, with the Super Bowl on the line, Vinatieri's aim was true
from 40-plus yards. Vinatieri's back may have ailed him, but Walter's foot
was the Patriots' Achilles' heel. That is why he is gone, and Miller is
here. Johnson has gamebreaking speed as a kick returner, and Brown lends
sure hands to the punt-return game. Grade: A-minus.

Pro Football Weekly Material from Pro Football Weekly.
Visit PFW's web site at http://www.profootballweekly.com