Since free agency began in 1993, when the young and hungry Dallas
Cowboys ruled the NFL for back-to-back seasons, no other team has
entered an off-season in better position to repeat as Super Bowl
champions than the New England Patriots. Here's why:

--With the possible exceptions of unsigned nose tackle Ted
Washington, underrated and unsigned left end Bobby Hamilton and
running back Antowain Smith (who's due a $500,000 option bonus),
New England shouldn't lose any vital players this off-season.

--Having acquired Baltimore's 2004 first-round draft pick and
Miami's second-rounder in trades last year, the Patriots will
have a league-high four draft picks in the first two rounds in

--A player many considered to be the best free agent on the
market last year, 26-year-old linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, is
expected back from a broken left hip that sidelined him for all
but the first two games of the season. He'll be a terrific
complement to a pass rush in which linebackers Mike Vrabel and
Willie McGinest and defensive end Richard Seymour combined for 23

Keeping Washington, the 365-pound mountain of a man who keyed the
league's fourth-best run defense, would be icing for New England.
But he turns 36 in April and lost six games to injury in '03, so
if he asks for a significant signing bonus, the Patriots, who are
smack-dab on what they project the salary cap will be ($78.5
million), will probably let him walk.

New England will try to free up some cap room by asking
cornerback Ty Law to restructure his contract, which counts $9.45
million against the cap next season. But the team has already
decided that should Law not want to renegotiate, they'll honor
his current deal because he's still a great corner at 29. Don't
look for Hamilton and Smith to be so lucky.

The great thing about having four picks in a talent-rich draft
(as many as 25 early-entry players may be taken in the first two
rounds, according to one NFL personnel czar) is that the Patriots
have the ammo to replace good players with supertalented
22-year-old prospects.

Either way, the defending champs will still have a franchise
quarterback in Tom Brady, who's 26 and a sterling 6-0 in playoff
games. The coach, Bill Belichick, is 51 and shows no signs of
burnout. Because of the emphasis Belichick puts on developing
young talent, the 53rd player on New England's roster is better
than most other teams' 40th player. "Individuals go to Pro
Bowls," vice president for player personnel Scott Pioli said last
week. "Teams win championships. We keep that in mind with every
player we bring on this team." --Peter King
Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback, every week at

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS JOY RIDE Christian Fauria (88), Ken Walter (13) and Vinatiericelebrated the second of what could be a run of titles.

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