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Meetings notebook: Patriots' paradise

KAPALUA, Hawaii – For a personnel man, these are the days when franchises are destroyed, hair is lost and blood pressure has the capacity to inflate a hot-air balloon.

That is, unless you are the New England Patriots' Scott Pioli, who grins his way through March and April as though he's been cast in a "Happy Days" marathon – as the Fonz.

Not that the Mr. Cool demeanor isn't appropriate. While his counterparts have emerged from free agency and the draft in recent years with Gucci bags for eyelids, Pioli seemed to breeze through behind a Teflon force field unencumbered by New England's roster losses.

Even sitting on one of the franchises' pivot points – needing to refresh a roster that lost several key role players – Pioli is precisely where he wants to be. Indeed, he lives for days like this, sitting atop nine draft picks (four in the first 94 selections) and once again needing to stick a cork in the franchise fissures.

"I've lost hair and gained weight," Pioli jokes.

Not that there hasn't been some stress from losing the likes of cornerback Ty Law, guard Joe Andruzzi and wide receiver David Patten. It's just that Pioli has been here before, whether it was with Lawyer Milloy or Damien Woody or Ted Washington. Replacing the likes of those players led Pioli to back-to-back honors as The Sporting News' NFL Executive of the Year – the second of which was awarded on Tuesday.

Notably, such accolades have been built beyond the first round of the draft for Pioli and the Patriots. In years like 2002, when the Patriots' draft produced wide receiver Deion Branch (second round), defensive end Jarvis Green (fourth) and wide receiver David Givens (seventh). Or an even better follow-up in 2003, when New England drafted safety Eugene Wilson (second), wide receiver Bethel Johnson (second), defensive tackle Dan Klecko (fourth), cornerback Asante Samuel (fourth), and center Dan Koppen (fifth).

While the team's 2004 draft has yet to show comparable dividends, Pioli has shown a remarkable ability (along with coach Bill Belichick and the rest of the New England scouting department) to find perfect components to fit the system. The secret? Pioli says there is none. It's as simple as an even-handed evaluation that sounds remarkably similar to every other NFL team in the league – taking the Holy Trinity of evaluation (workouts, statistics and smarts) and never lending one greater importance than the others.

Pioli's thoughts on each …

  • The almighty combine and personal workouts.

"How I rate the importance of those things – at the end of the day, we're not asking guys to come in on Sunday or Monday night and then flipping on the lights and asking them to perform in shorts and gym shoes in front of 65,000 people," Pioli said. "We're asking them to play football."

  • Gigantic college statistics.

"Productivity doesn't always (tell the truth)," he said. "During the 1980s and 1990s, there were a lot of teams and a lot of players that were products of the system – Nevada-Reno kids, Houston, Hawaii. … It's just like that saying, 'You have to ask yourself why – Why is there this level of productivity?' "

  • Brains over brawn.

"Something that's disappointing that I hear and read so often about our players is that they're just great guys and that they're just smart guys," Pioli said. "These guys are good football players. They really are. They can't have the level of success that they have had unless they are good football players.

"Mike Vrabel is a good football player. And [people say] 'Well, he's so smart, he's just a tough guy.' No, Mike Vrabel is a good football player. Ted Johnson is a good football player. Rodney Harrison is a good football player. Deion Branch is a good football player. They may not be great. They may not go to Pro Bowls, but they are good football players."


WIND SPRINTS

  • The Patriots aren't the only ones waiting to take a bite out of the draft. Their Super Bowl foes, the Philadelphia Eagles, received four compensatory picks. That's the most of any teams other than the St. Louis Rams, who also netted four. That gives Philadelphia a monster total of 13 picks in April's draft, including five in the first 94 selections.

Five other teams have hit double-digits in draft choices: Tampa Bay (12), St. Louis (12), San Francisco (11), Kansas City (11) and Seattle (10). Interestingly, the three teams with the league's lowest number of total picks are the ones who need them the most – the New York Giants (four), Miami Dolphins (five) and Washington Redskins (five).

The most interesting twist with the compensatory picks undoubtedly involves the Denver Broncos, who were given two third-round picks to offset the free-agent losses of defensive end Bertrand Berry and linebacker Ian Gold. Gold was released by Tampa Bay this offseason and re-signed by the Broncos. So Denver essentially earned a third-round pick for lending Gold to the Bucs for one season.

  • It will be interesting to see the relationship that develops between Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage and head coach Romeo Crennel. For now, Crennel only has input in the team's offseason philosophy, with Savage making all the final personnel decisions. In essence, the two come to a consensus on the team's strengths and weaknesses and the blueprint for building. But it's Savage who provides the specific players, albeit with Crennel offering his evaluations.

More often than not, friction has developed in similar situations. The most recent example was the fractured front office of the Seattle Seahawks, when former president Bob Whitsitt's lording over the roster in recent years led to a massive fallout with coach Mike Holmgren. And there's always the famous Bill Parcells tiff with Patriots owner Robert Kraft, when Parcells complained about his lack of input on his roster, stating: "If they want you to cook the dinner, they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries."

Savage, who bolted Baltimore to join the Browns, has already brought aboard several former Ravens, including cornerback Gary Baxter and quarterback Trent Dilfer. While the Dilfer trade raised eyebrows, the Baxter signing might have been just as interesting. Crennel said Tuesday that he prefers building his defenses from the inside out – nose tackles, inside linebackers and safeties, then out to the edge positions. Yet Baltimore's big free-agent splash was a cover corner.

"I haven't had that feeling [that Baxter was forced onto the roster] because I looked at Baxter, and I saw what kind of player Baxter was," Crennel said. "That was one of the things that we said – if we could get a corner that would be helpful to this team with [Anthony] Henry and [Lewis] Sanders leaving, we had to get a corner."

Pressed about not hand-plucking his roster, Crennel insisted, "My responsibility is to coach the football team – to be the best coach that I can be, to get the best staff that I can get."

  • Buffalo Bills running back Travis Henry continues to kick and scream in the media in an effort to force a trade. If the Bills are going to pull the trigger and ship Henry to the Arizona Cardinals, look for the deal to happen in April, prior to the draft.

The Cardinals are still dangling offensive tackle L.J. Shelton, which seems to make perfect sense in a player-for-player swap. Both players want to be traded, and both would fill needs with Henry going to Arizona and Shelton going to Buffalo. The holdup is Bills GM Tom Donahoe, who continues to seek better compensation (a second-round pick) than the underachieving Shelton.

"We've honored his request," Bills coach Mike Mularkey said of Henry. "We've tried to do some things with a trade. From the onset when I talked to Travis, we were going to make sure it was for the right value. At least equal value. That has not happened yet. … When the right situation happens and it's fair for both teams, then it will happen. We're not going to give him away."

Still, it appears painfully obvious Donahoe isn't likely to get much more than Shelton, especially with the strong running back class in the draft. If Buffalo waits, the Cardinals are likely to address their running back situation in the first two rounds of the draft. That would leave the Bills with the nightmare scenario of having to give Henry away for nothing, or risk bringing back a player with the potential to be corrosive in the locker room.

"I know he was disgruntled last year and he didn't become a distraction," Mularkey said. "I know he was frustrated last year. He still, until he got hurt, played the role we asked him to play."

  • Everyone is looking at the Oakland Raiders' offensive side of the ball, but head coach Norv Turner continues to be coy about several aspects of his defense. Cornerback Charles Woodson's fate is still up in the air, despite the fact that his $10.5 million salary cap burden for 2005 makes him nearly impossible to trade. Still, the Raiders have told Woodson's agents – the Poston brothers – to see if they can work a sign and trade.

"He could be a Raider when we start it, yet there are some teams that have expressed interest," Turner said. "We'll have to see where that goes."

As for the rest of the defense, Turner has the correct personnel to pull off a 3-4 and it's believed he'll settle on that scheme as his base look. Still, he continues to hedge about it, refusing to commit to a 3-4 or 4-3 and saying the Raiders "have the flexibility to do either."

  • Interesting moment of the day: In the middle of quizzing Cleveland Browns coach Romeo Crennel on his team's draft plans, the conversation was interrupted when several whales – in the midst of mating, according to one local – surfaced near the coastline of the Ritz Carlton resort and started jostling and blowing water into the air. An NFL head coach has never forgotten about his first-round pick so quickly.