Where ex-Patriot Milloy lands could shift the power in the AFC East
When New England this offseason signed free agent strong safety Rodney Harrison, the question heard loudly and often was whether his skills and hard-hitting style of play were too similar to four-time Patriots Pro Bowl strong safety Lawyer Milloy, New England's defensive captain?
Not too worry, said Patriots officials, who pointed out that New England's safeties would line up in a two-deep scheme, minimizing the importance of maintaining a traditional strong safety, free safety formation.
But with New England's shocking and sudden release of Milloy due to salary-cap constraints Tuesday, we're about to find out just how deep the Patriots really are at safety.
Just five days away from opening a season that some have predicted will conclude with the franchise's second Super Bowl appearance in three years, New England likely will take the field at Buffalo with career reserve Antwan Harris lined up alongside Harrison at safety.
For Harris, it would represent the 43rd game of his four-year NFL career, but just his second start. Chris Akins and Aric Morris, two veteran safeties who made the roster based on their special teams roles, could also factor into the mix at the newly vacated position.
For a team that seemingly had plugged its last major defensive hole two weeks ago, when behemoth veteran nose tackle Ted Washington was acquired in a trade with Chicago, Tuesday's news represented a stunning turn of events. Since April, the Patriots have parted ways with both of their starting safeties in Milloy and Tebucky Jones -- who was traded to New Orleans after Harrison was acquired -- and one of their two 2002 starting cornerbacks, veteran Otis Smith, was released last month.
After a 4-0 preseason in which the Patriots first-team defense was at times dominant, New England appeared to be entering the season as one of the AFC's elite teams. That still might be the case, but with just one holdover in the secondary -- veteran cornerback Ty Law is joined by fourth-round rookie cornerback Asante Samuel -- the Patriots have made it easier for opponents to identify their weakest link.
As important as Milloy's departure from the field is, the riskier move might be subtracting his leadership from the Patriots roster. It might just take a clubhouse lawyer to figure out what effect Milloy's absence from the locker room will have this season. Understandably, some Patriots players reacted angrily to the news that the team had sacrificed one of its best players and team leaders so close to the start of the regular season.
"I think 'shocked' is the word,'' linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "You sort of just shake your head and ask yourself, 'Why?' ''
According to a league source within the AFC East, Law himself was being shopped around in trade inquiries as recently as last week, as the Patriots tried to get both him and Milloy to restructure their contracts for cap purposes. Cornerback-needy Detroit was one team that New England is believed to have contacted regarding Law.
"It is scary in the timing,'' Law told the New England media Tuesday. "There's such a thing as good business and bad business. I don't know what category this one falls under. But to my eyes, and being selfish, at this late in the game and in regard to him and his family, I'm quite sure this is something that could have been done a long time ago.
"We thought we'd get this last year in together. We knew one, if not both of us, would be gone after next year. We were trying to leave on a good note, with a championship. ... I'm going to still try to go out there and lead the younger guys as much as I can, to go out there and always play for Lawyer and remember one of my fallen soldiers.''
As chilling as Tuesday's developments were, things would get worse for New England if Milloy signs with Buffalo -- a move that could tip the balance of power in the highly competitive AFC East toward the Bills. A Bills official confirmed the team's interest in Milloy on Tuesday, and said Buffalo was ready to immediately pursue a contract with him as soon as his name showed up on the NFL's daily transaction wire.
New Orleans and Washington are the other two teams seriously pursuing Milloy, but the Bills are believed to have the inside track. A league source said Milloy and his agent, Carl Poston, planned to lay out the options Tuesday night, before reaching a decision Wednesday morning.
Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe, Milloy's former Patriots teammate, is leading the cheers for Milloy in Buffalo. But Milloy also spoke a number of times Tuesday with Jones, the Saints safety who was his friend and fellow secondary mate in New England the past five years. Milloy is seeking a contract in the $4 million per year range, and while it's unclear if he'll reach that figure, both the Bills and Saints seem wary that Washington owner Daniel Snyder might elevate Milloy's price tag to a range they would deem too costly.
"Frankly he's not going to get the money he'd get if this were free agency in March,'' said a source with one of the interested teams. "Not at this time of year. It pretty much is what it is. There's no real time for a recruiting trip or a visit. He has to make a decision basically on what people are telling him on the phone.''
As bizarre as it sounds, if the Bills were successful in their pursuit of Milloy, he could dress and play Sunday when New England visits Ralph Wilson Stadium, most likely replacing Pierson Priloeau in the starting lineup at some point in the future.
Salary-cap releases are a way of life in today's NFL, and roster cutdown time has always been a numbers game. But rarely like this, in such dramatic fashion.
In New England, soon enough we'll know if the numbers still add up.
Don Banks covers pro football for SI.com.