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ON FOOTBALL

Did steps help Patriots, AFC East foes keep up?

Every team in the National Football League is improved today. They may not be in January, but for the moment there's not a team in the league that doesn't feel it closed the gap on the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.

No teams are more concerned than their rivals in the AFC East, the Dolphins, Bills, and Jets. Miami and Buffalo entered the offseason trailing the Patriots in personnel by more than a few lengths. The Jets played New England tough last season but didn't have enough playmakers to prevent the Patriots from winning their third Super Bowl title in four seasons.

The question is did those teams draft well enough to shore up areas of need that will make them more competitive this fall? Conversely, did New England counter with enough new blood to keep some distance between its division rivals?

The defending champions had needs at linebacker and in the secondary, but coach Bill Belichick refused to reach and ended up with what appears to be a two-day haul of the kind of players who have made his team a dynasty for the New Millennium -- versatile ones who give him flexibility.

Selecting two offensive linemen on the first day, including surprise first-round choice Logan Mankins, added depth and youth to a unit that lost Joe Andruzzi and Adrian Klemm, not to mention Stephen Neal's checkered injury history. New England drafted two massive and mean power blockers in Mankins and Mid-American Conference star Nick Kaczur. Both are 300-plus pounds, rugged, and have experience at tackle but also have shown the ability to move inside to guard and hold their ground against bigger men. What that means is the Patriots should have solid depth at the positions where offense really begins for some time to come.

In Rounds 3 and 4, New England reinforced a secondary that proved a year ago you can never have enough bodies. Cornerback Ellis Hobbs is a solid corner and possible return man and James Sanders is an undersized safety who is the kind of situational player and special teams demon Belichick tends to get the most out of.

It's no coincidence that Mankins and Sanders came out of Fresno State, either. Former Belichick offensive line coach Pat Hill is the head coach there, and Belichick likes to draft players who have played for coaches he knows and trusts. Hill recommended both highly.

Belichick then took another versatile player in Ryan Claridge, who was an outside linebacker at UNLV but has the ability to move inside as well. He's added insurance because of the questions about Tedy Bruschi's future and the age of Ted Johnson and Willie McGinest.

So what of the rest of the AFC East? Here's a look:

* Miami -- The Dolphins' needs were obvious because there were so many. They started last week with only five picks and none between the second and the 70th overall, but new coach Nick Saban remedied that by holding out until the Chiefs blinked and gave him the second-round choice he wanted for veteran cornerback Patrick Surtain. Surtain is one of the best corners in the league but Saban needs bodies and he got some by picking up that second-rounder and using his third-round pick on a guy who may be the key to the success of this draft.

That is assuming he didn't miss on the draft's second pick, Auburn running back Ronnie Brown. The addition of Brown was a major step up because it gives Saban a versatile and powerful runner who is also dangerous in the passing game to anchor his offense.

Brown's 4.45 40 speed, coupled with his size and north-south style, make Ricky Williams expendable and gives the Dolphins a lot of leverage in dealing with the mess he created when he suddenly "retired" last summer. Filling that hole was Miami's first need and it was filled by a player considered by many to be the best back on the board. You can't do better than that.

The next areas of concern were finding an outside linebacker, where Junior Seau has been showing his age, and a pass-rushing defensive lineman. Saban addressed both with sound selections -- Iowa defensive end Matt Roth, who slipped to 46th overall, and third-round pick Channing Crowder, an outside linebacker from Florida he knew well from coaching against him at LSU.

Crowder had first-round talent but free agent knees and some off-field problems that led him to be suspended for Florida's first game two years in a row. Saban believes he can channel Crowder's aggression and if he can and he stays healthy he's an athletic upgrade who will make tackles all over the field.

Saban then went for a guy who understands his defense, former LSU cornerback Travis Daniels, in the fourth round. Daniels has marginal speed but he was a productive player for Saban and he gives him depth, youth, and understanding of what he wants. Like Belichick, Saban also likes to stockpile young offensive linemen and hope they blossom. If fifth-round choice Anthony Alabi out of Texas Christian does, Miami will have helped itself greatly.

* New York Jets -- The Jets had a draft that was difficult to fathom. They could have taken the best tight end on the board in Virginia's Heath Miller but instead decided to trade their No. 1 pick to Oakland for veteran Doug Jolley. They certainly needed to upgrade that position but Miller seems to have more upside.

Then, after waiting 7 1/2 hours to pick, New York shockingly selected Ohio State kicker Mike Nugent as its second-round choice. Taking a kicker before the fourth round is rare and even though Nugent is said to have an unusually strong leg and proven accuracy under pressure he better become the next Morten Andersen to justify this selection because he is now the third-highest drafted kicker in league history.

Obviously the Jets remain haunted by the reliability of New England's Adam Vinatieri and the contrast between him and Doug Brien, who missed two potential winning field goals against the Steelers in the divisional playoffs that would have sent the Jets to Foxborough for the AFC Championship game.

New York recovered with cornerback Justin Miller, who many teams felt had first-round ability, but fell to 57th overall in part because he was arrested last weekend for disorderly conduct and spent a night in jail. Despite that, Miller was a great value pick. He has tremendous speed and was rated among the top 32 players in this draft by the Jets. He not only will help their secondary but is a dangerous kick returner who led the NCAA with a 33.1-yard average last season. With Santana Moss traded to the Redskins, the Jets found a more than adequate replacement.

They also were hoping to add some depth at safety and at nose tackle to replace Jason Ferguson. They got both in Utah nose tackle Sione Pouha in the third round and Louisville safety Kerry Rhodes in the fourth. Rhodes is a 6-foot-2 1/2-inch, 209-pounder who runs a 4.48 40. He's not considered a physical player for his size but that combination of athleticism, speed, and bulk is something coach Herman Edwards believes he can work with. In case he can't the Jets took another safety in Round 5, Andre Maddox of North Carolina State, to provide competition..

* Buffalo -- The Bills had no first-round choice so they had to scramble to improve, and didn't seem to succeed. The biggest mistake was the stubborn refusal of personnel guru Tom Donahoe to deal unhappy running back Travis Henry if he didn't get at least a third-round choice. The three teams he was talking to -- Arizona, Tampa Bay, and Philadelphia -- all drafted backs on the first day, leaving Donahoe with a guy who doesn't want to be in Buffalo and is loud about it.

The Bills did, however, succeed in achieving a major objective -- adding speed to bolster the league's 27th-ranked passing game. They got that with two University of Miami players, wide receiver Roscoe Parrish and tight end Kevin Everett.

Parrish, their second-round pick, is only 168 pounds but he runs a 4.38 40, has great explosiveness, and is fearless. He'll be expected to challenge slot receiver Josh Reed, who has been a disappointment. Parrish may be small, but he can run as fast as last year's No. 1, Lee Evans.

"We have to improve offensively," Bills coach Mike Mularkey said. "Parrish has playmaking ability, the ability to make big plays any time he touches the ball."

With two veteran tight ends coming off knee surgery, the Bills found insurance in the 6-4 1/2, 241-pound Everett. Scouts say he's still raw and not a strong blocker but he has soft hands and should give new starting quarterback J.P. Losman another target in the red zone.

The Bills' greatest need continues to be offensive line. Buffalo went for playmakers over hole openers until its first pick yesterday, when it drafted Illinois center Duke Preston in Round 4. With veteran Trey Teague likely moving back to tackle, he'll battle veteran Ross Tucker for the starting job.

In the fifth round Buffalo grabbed cornerback Eric King of Wake Forest. King may not be the answer but he at least is another young body.

So who came the closest to filling its most pressing needs? Probably Miami if Brown is the runner the Dolphins envision and Roth and Crowder develop, but if the Jets are indeed only a kick away they got their man in Nugent. If they're not, they'll run Terry Bradway and Edwards out of town for trading their first choice for a second-level tight end, then taking a guy who kicks for a living in the second round.

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