New England shored up its suspect defense with three prime free agents
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 comerback 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.