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Expecting few changes, the Pats should be back in XXXIX
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.
?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 sacks.
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."