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> After one Patriot literally dropped the ball in the critical late stages of last year's AFC Championship Game loss to the Colts, New England overhauled its wide receiver corps. The Pats dealt second- and seventh-round picks to Miami for returner/receiver Wes Welker last March�5, then signed free agents Donte' Stallworth ( Saints) and Kelley Washington ( Bengals) a week later. That was all prelude to the bargain swap of the century, on the second day of the April draft: New England's acquisition of five-time Pro Bowl wideout Randy Moss from the Raiders for a fourth-round pick. Moss then volunteered to take a $6.25�million pay cut as part of his effort to win that elusive first ring.
The running game has also been tweaked, though not nearly as much as the passing attack. Corey Dillon is gone, leaving the rushing load to second-year back Laurence Maroney, who had off-season surgery on his right shoulder and wore a red noncontact jersey for the first three weeks of training camp. In typical Patriots fashion, Maroney downplays his newfound prominence. "I'm just a little piece of the club," he says, "a small part."
On the other side of the ball, the addition of former Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas, who was considered by many the gem of the 2007 free-agent class, will buttress a New�England defense that ranked sixth overall in 2006. The 6' 2", 270-pound Thomas was prized for his versatility, and he is scheduled to start at inside linebacker, allowing Mike Vrabel to slide back to his natural outside spot. And with franchised cornerback Asante Samuel finally rejoining the team on Monday despite being unable to reach a long-term deal, the one major question on defense throughout camp has been resolved.
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
> The extreme wideout makeover appears to be a delayed effort to make amends to Tom Brady for getting rid of Deion Branch, his favorite target and one of his best friends in the league. Brady called his ceaseless fretting over the receiver's uncertain status before Branch was dealt to the Seahawks last September "a big mental drain," and Brady initially struggled to develop chemistry with Branch's replacements.
Newcomer Reche Caldwell picked up some of Branch's slack, leading the team in receptions (61) and receiving yards (760) and playing well in the postseason--until a bad day at the office in the AFC title game. Three miscues stand out: The first came late in the third quarter, when Caldwell dropped a sure touchdown pass that would've given the Patriots a 28-21 lead. ( Jabar Gaffney's balletic catch in the back of the end zone on the next play took Caldwell off the hook.) The second, another drop, came midway through the fourth quarter with the score tied at 28, the Patriots in the red zone and Caldwell wide-open. The third, a long incompletion, came inside of a minute to play and seemed to be the result of a miscommunication between Caldwell and Brady.
Rapport figures to be a problem again in '07 as Brady breaks in this new crop of wide receivers. While the additions of Moss, Stallworth and Welker give the Patriots, in theory, the NFL's most dangerous offense, the unit has had few reps together because of injuries. Moss has been sidelined with a balky left leg for most of training camp, while Stallworth missed a week with a bad hamstring. Welker has been healthy, but he and Brady have had trouble getting on the same page; in one preseason game the team needed four yards for a first down, but Welker broke just two yards downfield. "We have a long way to go," says Stallworth. "We all have to learn each other's football mannerisms."
It may take a few weeks, but eventually that will happen. Last season Gaffney didn't join the team until Oct.�9 and caught only 11 passes in the regular season, but come the playoffs he emerged as Brady's top target, with a team-high 21 grabs and two touchdowns. Indeed, he became the first player in league history to have consecutive playoff games with at least eight catches and 100 yards in the same postseason.
No matter who his receivers are, the success of the offense all comes back to Brady, who excels in whatever situation is put in front of him. The quarterback rarely locks in on a single target and is adept at spreading the ball around, reducing the need for a true No.�1 receiver. Of the Patriots' top seven pass catchers a year ago, only two were wideouts.