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Protective measures needed in his absence

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / September 22, 2010

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Kevin Faulk has never had so much as a 60-catch season. He only once exceeded 100 carries, and that was the only season in which he went over 1,000 yards from scrimmage.

So if there was ever a skill-position player to whom stats were irrelevant, it might be the only player on the current Patriots roster who predates Bill Belichick’s arrival in 2000.

There may be other players who embody what the Belichick Era Patriots mean as much as Faulk does. But it’s hard to see where anyone would personify them more than the versatile, unselfish, productive, and clutch 12th-year pro.

And that’s why yesterday’s news is more than just sad, since the fourth-quarter play Sunday on which the 34-year-old Faulk tore his right ACL might be the final one of his career. It’s also a blow for the team, losing a dependable leader and reliable playmaker from a young roster that could use more of them.

“In this day and age, guys like him are hard to find,’’ said a high-ranking pro personnel official from an NFC team. “The Patriots will miss his productivity on those crucial third downs and as a reserve runner.

“[Wes] Welker’s loss last year and Faulk’s loss this year could be considered almost equal in terms of type of blow to the team’s production. He will be hard to replace in his role.’’

Since Welker had a league-high 123 catches last year, and is more of an every-down player than Faulk, that statement might seem a little outlandish. But the truth with Faulk has never lay in the numbers.

It’s something no less an authority than Belichick himself was clear on yesterday.

“That role is a lot more than having the ball in your hands,’’ Belichick said. “Kevin is in there a lot of plays when he doesn’t have it in his hands — blocking, blitz pickup, formation. It’s not just handling the ball.’’

The Patriots have been adept at replacing their stars in the past, but this situation might be a little more complicated, because of the myriad roles Faulk is capable of filling.

If you start with his role as the team’s primary passing-down back, fellow greybeard Sammy Morris, 33, is most likely to step in. Fragile as he’s been — missing 17 games in his three years in New England — Morris is the most versatile remaining player.

Moreover, he is more experienced than the other options, and that’s important when it comes to protecting your quarterback’s neck against blitzers.

“Obviously, they have guys who have been around, and a big part of ‘pass pro’ is experience,’’ said a pro scout from an AFC team. “What you’re asking for in that role is what you get from Morris more than the other guys. He has a similar skill set to Kevin, and I’d expect his role to expand. He should get more action on passing downs.

“Fred Taylor’s been around, and he can step in and take on a linebacker, but what you need from him more is to be a workhorse on first and second down.’’

Morris, of course, was charged with blocking then-Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard in blitz pickup two years ago, on the play when Brady blew out his ACL and MCL — in a game for which Faulk was suspended.

But when you move past that play, you have a veteran player who has seen all the different looks from defenses and will be able to adjust within the parameters of the offense to almost anything thrown at him. The AFC scout did add that you lose something in pass protection and as a open-field weapon going from Faulk to Morris, but that’s to be expected when you move down the depth chart.

The other option would be to split the role, and perhaps use a tight end like Alge Crumpler in the backfield to pick up the slack from a blocking standpoint, and Julian Edelman or Danny Woodhead (both of whom would be difficult to trust as a pass protector) as a ball carrier in the open field.

“You might have more hot reads, and have the slot running more checkdowns,’’ said the AFC scout, who disagreed that Faulk’s loss was in the same category as Welker’s. “But Brady gets the ball out quick. I wouldn’t be too concerned. They have enough weapons.’’

The scout does expect there to be a transition period, though, as the Patriots decide what route to take in trying to replace Faulk’s production, of which there was plenty in a lot of areas.

“Efficiently as the Patriots run their offense, they typically keep third downs manageable, and Faulk has been a very good option on third downs over the years to keep drives going,’’ the NFC pro personnel man said. “He was very good on screens and checkdowns, with enough quickness to make a man miss and get the first.

“He’s also tough enough to block if he had to stay in on pass pro, and smart enough to adjust to the defense and give Brady time. He’s not big, he’s not fast. But he’s productive and understands his role.’’

That underscores the fact that, as the Patriots try to replace him, what they’re losing is a guy who’s a pretty good example of what they aspire to be collectively.

“He’s proven year in and year out how valuable of a player that he is,’’ said director of player personnel Nick Caserio. “And nobody respects Kevin Faulk more than our team and our club, and myself included. He’s a unique guy.’’

And those kinds of guys, invariably, are difficult to replace.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com.

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