August 27, 2008
SI's 2008 NFL Scouting Reports
New England Patriots
Projected Finish: 1st in AFC East
Mankins, a no-name turned Pro Bowl pick, typifies the Patriot way.
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
2008 Schedule

It's business as usual: Replacement parts have been found, everyone's locked in, the machine rolls on to the Super Bowl.

The 2002 Super Bowl -- Patriots 20, Rams 17 -- had been over for a few hours,and Bill Belichick, the New England coach, shook his head and mumbled to the fewpeople near him, "Can you believe we won the Super Bowl with this?"

It was hard to believe then that Belichick's collection of castoffs andreclamation projects had become world champions. Now it's not so hard. In an erain which dynasties are supposedly impossible because of the salary cap, freeagency and so forth, the Patriots under Belichick have marched through the 21stcentury like medieval warlords. In the last seven years they've won three SuperBowls in four appearances, and they're overwhelming favorites to be back thisyear.

Oh sure, there's always some tweaking to do. Two years ago they wouldn't paythe price to keep David Givens and Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch, so off wenttheir two top wideouts. "Give me wide receivers," Tom Brady said after the 2006season, in one of his few public shows of annoyance. So in came a supposedlywashed-up Randy Moss, who had an All-Pro year, and Wes Welker, Brady's magicianon the hot reads, who tied for the league lead in receptions.

This year's draft was for defense, for need. Most Patriots drafts are.Thirty-nine-year-old Junior Seau was commended for his faithful service but wasnot invited back. His spot, the coaching staff hopes, will go to top pick JerodMayo, a size- and-speed linebacker from Tennessee who brings a lot of wallop butadmitted in camp that Belichick's defenses, at times, were "a blur." There areplenty of veterans to help him. Two corners, including All-Pro Asante Samuel,were lost to free agency, but two more, Jason Webster and Fernando Bryant, camein by the same route, from Buffalo and Detroit, respectively.

People know better, by now, than to question personnel director Scott Pioli'sdrafts and trades. How many players have left the club and blossomed elsewhere?Almost none. Who, aside from the most obsessed draftniks, had ever heard ofLogan Mankins before New England took him with a first-round pick in 2005? Butin three years he has become one of the NFL's best guards.

The machine grinds on. Distractions are not allowed. You think Spygatecouldn't have been a major distraction last year? Three quarters of a milliondollars in fines from the league office because of the illicit videotaping, lossof a No. 1 draft choice, ugly stares on the street. Some distraction. The seasonended 18-1, and if the Giants' Eli Manning hadn't pulled a Houdini and squeezedout of a rush, and David Tyree hadn't pretended the ball was a long-distancephone call and clasped it to his ear, the Pats would have been 19-0 and SuperBowl champs.

Distractions are kept to a minimum around the Patriots, thanks to a net ofsecurity around the club that's tighter than a nosetackle's jersey. Mysterysurrounds all players on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list. The leaguepolicy on disclosure is muddled, more like, "well, it would be nice if they didcome clean." Not the Patriots. When strong safety Rodney Harrison came off thePUP list last month, he was asked, "Why were you on it?"

His eyes sparkled. "Now you know better than to ask me something like that,"he said.

Brady addressed reporters when he first came to camp and didn't speak againfor another three weeks. Moss didn't meet with the media at all untilmid-August.

Whipped dogs, that's what the Boston press corps covering the Patriots hasbecome. Belichick's daily press conferences are now exercises in how many wayshe can say, "All we're doing is trying to get better." Assistant coaches areoff-limits. The ring of security is tight. And it will be strange indeed if thisteam is not standing front and center in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa comeFebruary.

-- Paul Zimmerman


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