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Tough battles ahead

Physical focus grabs AFC East

By Albert R. Breer
April 25, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — After an offseason full of stealing the show, all you need to know about the AFC East’s newsmaking during the NFL draft can be summed up simply.

The Buffalo Bills stole the show. And the biggest buzz they created was over the quarterback — Florida’s Tim Tebow — they failed to get.

It’s not that the division’s three contenders failed to improve over the draft’s three days. It’s that they did it in a more measured way, and so the sizzle finally subsided in these parts.

What’s clear in its aftermath is that as much as things might have changed in the East over the last two months, the identity of the two biggest challengers to the Patriots’ throne won’t.

That means knuckles will be bloodied in the fall and, no matter who has Brandon Marshall or Santonio Holmes or Randy Moss, toughness could well win the day.

To their credit, in the last three days, the Patriots have been spoiling for a fight.

They took Devin McCourty, the NCAA’s leading tackler among corners. Then it was Rob Gronkowski, a 264-pound tight end. Then Jermaine Cunningham, a 266-pound outside linebacker, selected in front of some more athletic, but sinewy pass rushers. Then Brandon Spikes, a heart-and-soul linebacker who’s said to compare to Bryan Cox.

Even the punter they took, Zoltan Mesko of Michigan, is 6 feet 4 inches and 240 pounds and did 16 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press at the combine.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft said it himself when introducing McCourty in the middle of the fifth round on the new FieldTurf at Gillette Stadium: “We think we’ve had a great draft so far — a lot of physical players, which is what we like.’’

The last time we saw the Patriots, there weren’t enough of those on the roster.

Baltimore came into Foxborough in January with a quarterback limping around with hip and quad injuries, and promptly steamrolled through. Joe Flacco only had to throw the ball 10 times, and the Ravens ran it 52 times for 234 yards in a 33-14 romp, the first home playoff loss in Bill Belichick’s 10 years here.

The whole debacle showed how this team, whose hallmark was its toughness, was lacking in that department when it mattered most.

“That’s a pretty common theme in the league,’’ Belichick said, when asked about the physical nature of the AFC East. “Baltimore’s physical. Cincinnati’s physical. Pittsburgh’s physical. San Diego’s physical. Jets, Miami, Buffalo’s going to a little more physical style of play with two backs, Chan [Gailey] and what he’s done in the past in emphasizing the running game.

“That’s football. I think you’ve got to be physical.’’

That’s particularly true in the AFC East.

The Jets had the league’s No. 1-ranked running game last year. The Dolphins were fourth. Both have size and attitude on defense, all the way to the secondary.

That’s not changing. Miami dealt back in the first round with the Chargers and pulled in two front-seven players — an interior defensive lineman from Penn State (Jared Odrick) and violent outside linebacker (Koa Misi). The Dolphins then took 328-pound guard John Jerry in Round 3.

Not to be outdone, the Jets took 332-pound tackle Vladimir Ducasse, who’ll be a guard in New York, in the second round, and blocking back John Conner in the fifth round, while also adding an aggressive corner (Kyle Wilson) and versatile third-down back (Joe McKnight).

The bottom line is that the idea of what those teams want to be isn’t changing, not by a long shot, with Bill Parcells’s group in charge of one (Miami) and his fingerprints all over the other (Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum cut his teeth under the Tuna).

University of Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said last week that, in regards to clubs with links to the Parcells/Belichick tree, “I know one thing we all seem to have is big teams, regardless of position . . . I remember one of them, Bill or Nick [Saban], saying, ‘Nobody pays to watch a lightweight fight. They pay to see the heavyweights.’ There’s a lot to that.’’

Belichick was careful last night not to overplay it yesterday, emphasizing that the Patriots have to be prepared for everyone, and that includes the high-flying Colts.

But he also knows what he’s up against in his backyard. “You have to have an awareness of it,’’ he said, “if you’re gonna see a certain thing six times a year.’’

And what the Patriots have now is a fight on their hands. The entrance of players like Holmes and Marshall to the division makes a difference, to be sure. It just doesn’t change the identity of the Jets and Dolphins.

You can see it in Buffalo, too, where the Bills drafted four players for their front seven on defense and two players for their line on offense.

“You know how you’re going to build your team,’’ Chargers GM A.J. Smith said. “But you look at other teams, and pay attention to every move that’s going to be a threat to your success.’’

The biggest threats to the Patriots’ success, at this point, are the Jets and Dolphins.

And while the challenges have been intensified this offseason, the main tasks remain the same.

The Patriots know they need to be ready for a brawl.

During the draft, they readied for the fight.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer.

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