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Inside the NFL

March 24, 2003
March 24, 2003

Table of Contents
March 24, 2003

Inside the NFL

Smooth Moves
New England shored up its suspect defense with three prime free
agents

This is an article from the March 24, 2003 issue Original Layout

Talk about a stealth franchise. The Patriots flew under the NFL's
free-agency radar last week and stole two defensive starters to
begin rebuilding a defense that ranked 23rd in the league last
season. Having signed the best free agent on the market
(pass-rushing linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, from the Bears) and an
intimidating safety (Rodney Harrison, from the Chargers), New
England has quietly emerged as the most improved team in the NFL
this off-season.

The Patriots aren't done reloading, either. They now have three
Pro Bowl--caliber safeties--Harrison plus incumbent strong safety
Lawyer Milloy and free safety Tebucky Jones, who, as the team's
franchise player, could be traded for a top 50 draft pick. If
that happens (and it's more like when it happens), New England
would have five choices among the top 75 in the April draft. For
a 9--7 team looking to get faster and more physical on defense,
the infusion of talent should provide what coach Bill Belichick
calls "the ammunition to get better."

Most impressive about the two signings is the relatively small
amount of money it took to get them done. Colvin, who turned down
an eight-figure signing bonus from the Cardinals, got $6 million
to sign as part of a six-year, $25 million deal with the Pats.
Harrison estimates he was an hour or two from agreeing to a
contract with the Raiders, in the club's Alameda, Calif.,
offices, when the Patriots called and persuaded him to fly
cross-country and hear their pitch; he accepted their six-year,
$14.5 million offer. Throw in cornerback Tyrone Poole, signed
away from the Broncos on March 5, and the combined first-year
salary-cap figures for New England's three new starters in 2003
is $3.73 million. That's amazing when you consider that as free
agency kicked off last month an acceptable cap number for Colvin
alone would have been upward of $3 million.

Poole, 31, gives the Patriots the cover corner they have lacked
opposite Ty Law. Colvin, 25, left free by the Bears because they
felt they couldn't pay three linebackers (including Brian
Urlacher and Warrick Holdman) big money, will play opposite
pass-rushing end Willie McGinest. Harrison, 30, brings a chippy
attitude that will help New England. Last week the two-time Pro
Bowl player, whose style of play has led to more than $100,000 in
fines and a one-game suspension without pay for a flagrant hit,
was already firing on all cylinders. "I'm here not only because
they paid me a little more money than Oakland," Harrison said,
"but also because Bill Belichick looked me in the eye and said,
'I need you for this defense. I want you to be a leader.' When I
knew how he felt, that was it."

Kordell Stewart Signs
What Were the Bears Thinking?

Since Jim McMahon's last hurrah in 1988, Chicago has been
searching for a top-drawer quarterback, and that quest took an
odd turn last week with the signing of the inconsistent Kordell
Stewart to a two-year, $4.75 million contract. Odd because
Stewart has never done well with a capable backup looking over
his shoulder and because the Bears told at least one college
quarterback at the February scouting combine that they planned to
draft a passer in the first three rounds. "This doesn't change
our draft thinking," Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo said
last week.

Then why didn't the Bears give the job for 2003 to veteran Chris
Chandler, last year's backup to Jim Miller (waived last month),
and sign another passer, such as Kent Graham, for near the
minimum as immediate insurance? Chicago figures to groom a likely
second-round draft pick--Rex Grossman of Florida or Chris Simms
of Texas--as the long-term starter, but in the meantime it's
strange to lay out millions for an underachiever like Stewart
when Chandler could step in and perform just as well.

Check out Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback at
si.com/football.

COLOR PHOTO: LENNY IGNELZI/AP (HARRISON) Harrison (37) was on the verge of signing with Oakland.COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN J. CARRERA/AP Chicago already plans to draft a successor to Stewart.