Early in a controlled, no-tackling, intrasquad scrimmage in front of season-ticket holders at Foxboro Stadium on Aug. 7, middle linebacker Ted Johnson -- a starter since he broke in with New England in 1995 -- reached out to put a hand on rookie running back Kevin Faulk. As he did, Johnson tore his left biceps tendon. The injury is expected to sideline Johnson for up to four months.
Thus, one question was answered before the 1999 season had even begun: The Patriots will not be able to avoid the injuries that ultimately sacked them in '98, when the likes of quarterback Drew Bledsoe, wide receiver Terry Glenn, tight end Ben Coates, defensive end Willie McGinest and Johnson were all sidelined for multiple games.
Even with that question answered, several others surround these '99 Patriots. Questions such as:
Who will be the man in the middle of the defense?
"We've got some questions to answer," said coach Pete Carroll, whose future is in question as well.
Here's a position-by-position look at New England's roster:
No questions here. Bledsoe will start and throw the ball about 550 or 600 times, and the Patriots will go as far as his trusty right arm will take them. Bledsoe's 3,382 pass attempts over his first six years in the league are more than any other quarterback has thrown during his first six seasons.
With uncertainty surrounding New England's running game once again this year, the burden of being Drew doesn't figure to get any lighter this fall. John Friesz is an upgrade over Scott Zolak at backup. Grade: A-
Talk about starting at ground zero. When they open the season in the Meadowlands against the Jets, the Patriots will start their third running back in as many years. Perennial 1,000-yard rusher Curtis Martin hopped aboard Bill Parcells' Jets shuttle after the '97 season. Robert Edwards, who stepped in and crossed the 1,000-yard plateau as a rookie, went down with a season-ending and career-threatening knee injury while playing flag football in Hawaii during Pro Bowl week.
The big question for New England obviously is running back. Losing Robert Edwards to injury one year after losing Curtis Martin to free agency makes things very difficult.
Rookie Kevin Faulk has been running well in preseason, but his college program listed him at 5-foot-10 and when he got measured for the NFL he was listed at less than 5-8. He's about 195 pounds, maybe 200, so his durability is going to be a big question.
Faulk is getting a lot of carries in the preseason because he needs the work. But after the four preseason games and six regular-season games, Faulk will have already played a full college season, and he'll still have 10 games left in his rookie year. He will need to make a big adjustment to carrying that type of load.
If Faulk breaks down, New England signed veteran Terry Allen as insurance. The Pats' passing game also will need to pick it up and carry some of that offensive burden.
One other problem for the Patriots is they cannot continue to have their leading receiver be a tight end. I know Ben Coates is the security blanket for Drew Bledsoe, but Terry Glenn must stay injury-free and stretch the field for New England.
Defensively, the loss of Ted Johnson will be very difficult to overcome. Rookie Andy Katzenmoyer will step in there, and I think he will do a good job. Giving up safety Willie Clay was probably the worst offseason move of the year. But the Pats still have a very good defense.
Now Faulk, a second-round pick out of Louisiana State, appears to be the front-runner to succeed Edwards. Lamont Warren, Marshall Faulk's one-time caddy in Indianapolis, and veteran Terry Allen will spell the rookie.
Tony Carter will start at fullback, while Chris Floyd will back him up and could get the ball in short-yardage and goal-line situations. The Patriots' ground game hasn't averaged four yards per carry for a season since 1985. Grade: D
It's the hurts, not the hands, that constitute the question mark here. Can Glenn, whose mere presence improves the Patriots offense, stay healthy? Can Coates, who had ankle problems last season and sprained his knee early in training camp this year, regain his health? Deep threat Shawn Jefferson averaged 22.7 yards per catch last season, but he'd better not turn around, because Tony Simmons, a '98 second-round pick, is gaining on him.
Dependable Troy Brown is an established overachiever who's at his best on third down, but he was also nicked up last year. Grade: B
Some would say center Dave Wohlabaugh's offseason defection to the Browns constituted the first hole a member of the Patriots' offensive line had created in years. The Pats didn't look far to fill the void, making Boston College's Damien Woody their first pick in April's draft. Either Woody or Jason Andersen, a '98 seventh-round pick who didn't play a down as a rookie, will man the middle.
With salaries that far exceed their performance levels, Max Lane and Todd Rucci are penciled in at guard. Zefross Moss and Bruce Armstrong, who had an off year in '98, are a pair of slimmed-down (relatively speaking) tackles. Plan on this group continuing to act as Bledsoe's insurance policy in the pocket. It pass-blocks well. Just don't plan on this group establishing the ground game. Grade: C-
McGinest is this unit's answer to Glenn. McGinest has it all -- except his health, of course. Too bad because, like Glenn, McGinest's mere presence opens things up and makes the Patriots a better team. As last year's 23 sacks by defensive linemen attest, this team sorely needs a healthy McGinest.
Fourth-year DE Chris Sullivan is trying to fend off third-year man Brandon Mitchell at the other DE spot. Henry Thomas and Chad Eaton, a one-time waiver-wire claim who earned some Pro Bowl consideration last year, are the defensive tackles.
Though undersized at 6-foot-1 and 265 pounds, DE Greg Spires is quick enough to pose a threat in pass-rushing situations. In June, the team signed DE-DT Sterling Palmer, who had been out of football since 1996. That speaks volumes about this group's lack of depth. Grade: B
It was all going to be so neat, so tidy. The Patriots had a plan. Ohio State's Andy Katzenmoyer, the second of New England's two first-round picks, would come in and exert some pressure on OLB Tedy Bruschi, dueling him for the spot vacated when Todd Collins moved to St. Louis during the offseason. If Katzenmoyer came on fast enough, Bruschi would continue to come off the bench and make plays in the situational role in which he has excelled since '96.
Once Johnson, who tore his right biceps tendon in December of last year, went down, though, the Patriots were forced to resort to Plan B. Katzenmoyer was shifted back to the middle, where he played in college. Bruschi will start on the weak side. After hobbling through '98 on a bum knee and ankle, Chris Slade returns on the strong side. He must reassert himself. Grade: C+
Last season was a breakthrough campaign for CB Ty Law and SS Lawyer Milloy, both of whom earned their first all-expenses-paid trips to Hawaii to represent the AFC in the Pro Bowl. Law was impressive, especially considering the team's passive pass rush. Milloy had a career-high six thefts, but he's at his best when he pins his ears back and hits.
Once he became healthy, Steve Israel brought some order to the corner opposite Law. Youngster Tebucky Jones remains a project. With the release of outspoken FS Willie Clay and his $1.5 million salary on the eve of training camp, third-year man Chris Carter became a starter. Grade: B
While his leg strength is often called into question, there are few surer things in life than kicker Adam Vinatieri approaching a football from inside 30 yards. Over his three years with the Patriots, Vinatieri is 32-for-33 on field-goal attempts of 29 yards or shorter. Vinatieri's short kickoffs will no longer be an issue, however, as punter Lee Johnson, summoned after Tom Tupa jumped to the Jets, can double up in that role. Grade: B
Material from Pro Football Weekly.
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