Late-round gems add shine to the big game


HOUSTON - Who would have guessed that a seventh-round draft pick in his second NFL season would be the New England Patriots' leading receiver in the playoffs?

Who could have known that a sixth-round pick three years ago would become the team's franchise quarterback, leading the Patriots to two Super Bowls during that time?

And how do you explain a rookie cornerback who comes up with three interceptions in the game that got the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl?

Youth - and talent - have a way of shining through in the NFL, which partially accounts for the surprising success of the Patriots' David Givens and Tom Brady, and the Panthers' Ricky Manning Jr.

Shrewd drafting helped get the Patriots and Panthers to Houston for today's championship showdown. Here are three key draft picks for each team who have made significant contributions this season.


Quarterback Tom Brady

Draft data: Sixth round in 2000, 199th player taken overall

What he offered: Although his physical skills weren't overly impressive, Brady had the mental makeup that coach Bill Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli were looking for. Pioli characterized those mental skills as "superior," and stressed that charisma and character are valuable criteria in the team's search for leadership positions.

"Things that people refer to as intangibles, we do not see as intangibles at all," Pioli said. "A player's makeup, his character, his integrity, his leadership - all those things are very valuable to us. And they have a big say in how we try to build our football team."

Bottom line: Brady learned fast. At 26, he has a chance to become the youngest quarterback to win two Super Bowls. He has earned his way, running a pass-first offense with exquisite efficiency.

Wide receiver David Givens

Draft data: Seventh round in 2002, 253rd player overall.

What he offered: Although Givens played in an option offense at Notre Dame and was not a big factor in the passing game, he demonstrated enough athleticism to warrant a draft pick.

"David's very mature and a hard worker," Pioli said. "He's a guy who knew what his strengths were, what his limitations were. He knew what he needed to work on.

"He had been in a system in college that maybe didn't play to what his strengths are. The good part about that, to his credit, you never heard David talk about that. He accepted it. From a makeup standpoint, that really fits us."

Bottom line: After catching only nine passes as a rookie, Givens worked hard in the offseason and came back this season much improved. He had six touchdowns among 34 catches in the regular season and leads the team with 12 receptions in the playoffs.

Cornerback Asante Samuel

Draft data: Fourth round in 2003, 120th player overall.

What he offered: Samuel played at Central Florida and didn't have ideal size (only 5 feet 10 and 185 pounds) or blazing fast. But he had good instincts and excellent awareness.

"He was an instinctive player and he could see the field and had good reactionary speed, which is completely different from pure speed," Pioli said. "He could see the field, see the quarterback, see the receivers and be able to react to the football."

Bottom line: Playing mostly nickel back as a rookie, Samuel had two interceptions and nine passes defensed, while making 35 tackles. He has played well in the postseason.


Left guard Jeno James

Draft data: Sixth round in 2000, 182nd player overall.

What he offered: James looked more like a training camp player than a legitimate prospect in 2000, even though he started at tackle for four years at Auburn. But the Panthers made him a project and he quickly earned a spot as a role player on special teams. He was also a backup at several spots.

Bottom line: When Mike Maser was hired as line coach this season, he installed James at left guard and kept him there, unlike the previous shuffling James endured. At 6-3 and 310 pounds, James responded by winning the job and giving stability to the weakest position on the line.

Linebacker Will Witherspoon

Draft data: Third round in 2002, 73rd player overall.

What he offered: Versatility was Witherspoon's strength at Georgia, where he started at three different linebacking positions in his last three years. He also graded high in intelligence. Coming from a military family, he lived in Germany and England growing up. He speaks German and is learning Arabic and Swedish.

Bottom line: Witherspoon's versatility served the Panthers well a year ago. He started the season as a backup at weak-side linebacker, but when Dan Morgan went down with an injury, he was forced to play the demanding position of middle linebacker. This season, he was able to move back to the weak side, where his speed and aggressiveness make him a reliable playmaker.

Cornerback Ricky Manning

Draft data: Third round in 2003, 82nd player overall.

What he offered: A small corner at a major school, the 5-8 UCLA standout demonstrated the kind of toughness you need to play on the perimeter in the NFL.

"He had a toughness, a mental and physical toughness, about him that told us he was a football player," said Panthers general manager Marty Hurney. "That's what we look for. Height, weight and speed isn't as important as just knowing he could make plays."

Bottom line: Manning was Carolina's fifth defensive back for much of the season until left cornerback Terry Cousin was injured in late November. Manning played well enough that he kept the starting job when Cousin returned. And against Philadelphia in the NFC championship game, Manning had three interceptions.

Super Bowl facts and figures

Records vs. spread

Patriots 14-3-1 Panthers 9-10 Series

Tied 1-1.

Last meeting

Patriots won, 38-6, on Jan. 6, 2002, at Carolina.


Patriots: Probable: LB Tedy Bruschi (leg); TE Christian Fauria (leg); FB Patrick Pass (ankle). Panthers: None reported. NFL rankings

Patriots offense: 17th (rush 27th, pass 9th).

Patriots defense: 7th (rush 4th, pass 15th).

Panthers offense: 16th (rush 7th, pass 18th).

Panthers defense: 8th (rush 11th, pass 9th).

Coaches' records

Patriots' Bill Belichick: 75-69 regular season, 6-1 playoffs. Panthers' John Fox: 18-14 regular season, 3-0 playoffs.

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