Sports on Earth's NFL writers Mike Tanier, Dan Pompei, Russ Lande and Robert Weintraub will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most pressing problems facing each one and proposing the best solutions. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
Think of the Patriots as a silver-haired captain of business, still very successful but entering his early sixties.
Can you picture him? He looks nothing like Bill Belichick. More like one of the dudes from the Cialis commercials: fit and trim, great home, a wife who was an all-county cheerleader when he was opening his second Audi dealership. He was still near the top of his game last fiscal year -- 12 wins and a trip to the conference championship game are only disappointments by his extremely lofty standards -- but when he sits down with his financial planner, he discovers that it is time for The Talk.
Your earning potential won't be sky high forever, Mr. Patriots. Your greatest assets will be liquidated before you know it. It's time to switch from long-term strategies to short-term profit taking.
The Patriots got where they are by being judicious long-range planners, so changing their stock portfolio to maximize the yield while Tom Brady is still in uniform will require a shift in mindset. No more playing hardball with veterans. No more trading down and stockpiling draft picks for the year 2023. The Patriots don't want to slowly wind down until they become just another playoff team, then bid Brady farewell and shut off the life support. They want to win now, and it is worth mortgaging a portion of the future to make it happen. Think of it as the Patriots edition of the Die Broke strategy.
So let's not think like the Old Patriots, but like the New Patriots, who at a few key positions are actually Old Patriots. If they can keep their core together, the Patriots are a player or two away from overtaking the Broncos and getting a few more shots at the NFC powerhouses in the Super Bowl. So let's consolidate that core and find those players.
Problem: Aqib Talib is about to hit the open market.
Solution: Make a last-ditch push, but think Grimes, not Revis.
The Patriots have been negotiating with Talib's people, but they don't like to shell out big bucks to veterans with long injury histories and lingering character concerns. During this weekend's speed-dating period, Talib's name started popping up in the usual places (the Washington Post Redskins blog, for instance).
You see, this is Old Patriots thinking at work. The New Patriots reality is that they need a Pro Bowl caliber cornerback, in his prime, right now, even if they have to spend a little more than they would like to keep him. Brent Grimes set the market for veteran cornerbacks last week with a four-year, $16 million guaranteed deal. If Talib expects a contract in the Grimes range, the Patriots should give it to him.
If Talib wants Darrelle Revis money, well, Dan Snyder is stuffing sacks with $ symbols on front of them. There is scuttlebutt about the Patriots trading for Revis himself, though that sounds a little like a fan wish-fulfillment fantasy than something that could really happen. Assuming it would take the Patriots' first round pick to spring Revis, which would you rather have: Talib and a first round pick or Revis? Keep in mind that Talib has a year-and-a-half in the system and, even with a new deal, would come cheaper. Thought so.
Time is running out on a Talib deal, and he will merit a Grimes-plus offer on the open market. If that happens, the Patriots need to get a consolation prize veteran. Brandon Browner, Cortland Finnegan and Champ Bailey are three in-the-news veterans who still bring some elite goods to the party. If non-suspended players whose odometers have not rusted out are more your bag, Rashean Mathis and Corey Graham are the kinds of smart, high-effort veterans that Belichick has had success with in the past by not asking too much of them.
But the Patriots should not be thinking genius-grade reclamation projects (Old Patriots) or prospect development. They should be thinking Talib at fair market value, or even a smidgen above.
Problem: Several free agents on offense.
Solution: Lock a few of them up.
The Patriots were negotiating with receiver Julian Edelman at press time, and they should lock him up. Like Talib, Edelman presents an Old-versus-New Patriots dilemma.
The Patriots let Wes Welker walk last year, and with three somewhat-impressive rookie receivers in the pipeline, they may be inclined to let Edelman leave as well. That Welker-Edelman 105-catch slot role is starting to look a little interchangeable, yet some other team may throw big money at a player who caught 53 passes in his last six regular season games and 16 more in the playoffs. The New Patriots should keep Edelman in house, even at a premium price, because the drop-off from Welker to Edelman to Josh Boyce may be a drop-off that ends Brady's Super Bowl opportunities forever.
Michael Hoomanawanui is also a free agent. We will get around to cleaning up the Patriots' tight end situation in a moment, but they should keep Hooman around to do what he has always done: contribute on special teams and serve as the H-back off the bench who knows the system. Ryan Wendell is not an ideal center, but the only ideal center hanging around the open market right now is Alex Mack. If Mack falls into the Patriots' lap, and the Browns don't top the offer because no one wants to talk to Mike Lombardi on the telephone, awesome. If not, re-sign Wendell and search for a developmental replacement in a cave somewhere, perhaps Braxston Cave.
Our generosity ends, however, at LeGarrette Blount. He essentially had two great games last year, one of them in the playoffs, and a close look at his track record suggests that he is one of the last people on Earth you want to offer lots and lots of guaranteed money. There are plenty of power backs in the draft to replace Blount. Boston College's Andre Williams is my favorite: he looks like the second coming of John Riggins. LSU's Jeremy Hill is like another Blount, warts and all, but the Patriots can get him for mid-round pick money. Neither Williams or Hill is a natural fit as an every-down NFL runner, but either could replace Blount in the Patriots' 80-guy committee backfield.
Problem: Brady needs more weapons than ever.
Solution: Add some geezer pleasers.
You can stomp your feet and point to Edelman, Danny Amendola (who may yet be released), Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Boyce and Rob Gronkowski all you want, Old Patriots thinker. Yes, the Dobson-Thompkins-Boyce trio could develop into a playoff-caliber receiving corps. Yes, Amendola and Gronkowski can help win a Super Bowl if both are healthy. The Patriots cannot wait for development, and no one can wait for Amendola and Gronk to get healthy. The Patriots need to squeeze some instant-impact players into the equation. But since we ate up a bunch of their cap room keeping Talib and Edelman, they will have to be creative.
Devin Hester won't cost much, and he immediately adds danger to the return units while freeing Edelman up to be a full-time receiver. Hester has limited offensive value, but Josh McDaniels could customize a screen-bomb-reverse package for him. The Patriots are a contender searching for upgrades at the margins. Hester is exactly the kind of luxury they can afford to pamper themselves with.
Love the Hester concept but don't like Hester? Jacoby Jones may cost more money, but he brings more versatility. Like Hester, he takes over both return jobs immediately, freeing Edelman and replacing Blount. Unlike Hester, he can fill a more traditional role as a receiver. The Patriots desperately lacked a true lid-lifter to run deep routes and clear room for all of those underneath receivers. Jones could fill that role.
Scott Chandler is a very solid receiving tight end who would be deadly as a second option behind Gronk and would keep the Matthew Mulligan types off the field when Gronk gets hurt. Ed Dickson is a cheaper alternative to Chandler who has thrived in the past as a second tight end and short receiving threat. There was an informative sentence here about Jeff Cumberland, but the Jets forced us to edit it out by extending his contract. You get the picture: The Patriots have a role and a need for a slot-and-flex tight end, and the market will close fast, so they should move.
We are not going to draft any receivers for the Patriots because they have ample youth in Dobson-Thompkins-Boyce. Some or all of the youngsters will still play critical roles. But the Patriots cannot afford to depend too heavily on them if they hope to make Brady's golden years truly golden.
Problem: Immediate contributors needed on defense.
Solution: Don't trade down, trade up.
Statistically, the Patriots had a pretty good pass defense and a pretty bad run defense. Realistically, they had a defense that was stretched thin due to injuries; Belichick picked his poison when Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo went down, sacrificing every-down stoutness for a boom-or-bust philosophy that can be very effective against the Texans and Browns of the world.
Belichick gets Mayo and Wilfork back this year (Wilfork's camp sounds amenable to a contract that will adjust his cap figure), but there are still a lot of regulars on the defense who are well below championship grade. For years, the Patriots have stocked the defensive shelves with developmental mid-round picks and street free agents. Again, back to the New Patriots theme: they could do that once more this year, win about 11 games, and have a bunch of solid players ready for the start of the Ryan Mallett era. Instead, they must trade up in search of the maximum possible impact in the first round.
Kony Ealy (defensive end, Mizzou) may appear to be out of even trade-up reach, but if quarterbacks and receivers start flying off the shelves, Ealy could be there in the late teens or early 20s of the first round. Ealy is an impact pass rusher and every-down defensive end who can allow Belichick to be creative on the front seven: Chandler Jones could move inside more often, Rob Ninkovich could slide into a blitz linebacker role on some downs, and so on.
If the Patriots stay put, Scott Crichton (Oregon State) and Kareem Martin (North Carolina) are high-energy multi-tool defensive ends who can also slide inside. These three ends will give Belichick the ability to limit reliance on Wilfork and Tommy Kelly while customizing his fronts to the opponent and situation.
The Patriots could also trade up for a cornerback. Jason Verrett (TCU) ran a 4.38 40 at the Combine, but the 5-foot-9 defender is not ready for the starting lineup. He is ready, however, for a specialized nickel-dime role covering slot speedsters. Remember who the Patriots must get past to reach the Super Bowl: they can never have too many cornerbacks.
Adrian Wilson expects to return to stabilize the safety position somewhat, but the Patriots should be ready to trade up if Calvin Pryor (Louisville) drops. Safety may be the position where Belichick must perform his late-round wizardry, perhaps grabbing Nickoe Whitley (Mississippi State), a hot-headed playmaker coming off an ACL tear, in the late rounds and grooming him behind Wilson and the other temporary fixes.
But what about depth at other positions? The Patriots have a stockpile of adequate bench defenders: there is no way they would have reached last year's playoffs without them. The Patriots need instant impact. It's out there. The Patriots must simply train themselves to stop trying to win the next seven Super Bowls, and focus instead on the next one.