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I wrote at the end of September that Bill Belichick had lost his fastball on defense. As it turned out, I was wrong. Given the personnel, I thought it was a near miracle that the Patriots were an incomplete pass from a Super Bowl championship. Looking back, it was one of his finest coaching seasons.
So I realize, as the Patriots move forward, they still have two key components that give them an advantage over every team in the AFC and most teams in the NFL. They have the best coach and they have one of the best quarterbacks.
However, now that we’ve dissected that Super Bowl, we should realize that while the incomplete pass might have been the eventual cause of the loss, the root cause was a defense that couldn’t get the Giants offense off the field. And that is what the NFL game is all about today. You need and a few key stops that do not take a lot of time off the clock and allow your offense to get back on the field quickly. You can’t depend on turnovers as the Patriots proved against the Giants; the next line of defense is three and outs.
The Patriots only had four possessions in the second half of the Super Bowl until the Giants took the lead for good. The Giants time of possession and superior field position forced the Patriots into a situation where they needed a perfect drive to win the game.
The Giants team is designed to win Super Bowls in the modern day NFL: great offense, good pass rush, solid but not great secondary. The Patriots are missing two of those three components and yet were almost able to win a Super Bowl. Imagine what they can do with all three. They can turn it around on defense and they can turn it around quickly. Take the Houston Texans who in one year went from one of the worst pass defenses to the best by adding key components on defense through free agency and the draft. The Texans also did this while they lost defensive end Mario Williams, one of the best defensive players in the NFL, to injury early in the season.
I think the Patriots’ window is anywhere from two to four years. A lot of that will depend on Tom Brady’s health. In 2008, he had a torn ACL. In 2009, it was broken ribs and the last two years, shoulder injuries. So he could play at a high level until he’s 38, like Kurt Warner and John Elway did, or it could go down hill quickly due to injury like it did with Joe Montana, Troy Aikman and Steve Young.
If last year was the most interesting free agent year in NFL history, this could be the second most interesting. Because of the lockout last year and the new CBA, teams were allowed to roll extra salary cap space into this season. Also, many players were signed to one-year deals and not locked up long-term, leaving a very deep and interesting crop of talent available to many teams with the money to spend.
The Patriots are one of those teams, as preliminary estimates show them in the ballpark of $29 million in salary cap space. Now that doesn’t include their own free agents some who were key contributors either this year or in past years. If the Patriots re-sign some of those players if will eat into that 29 million.
The key players on that list are the following:
OFFENSE: Ben Jarvis Green-Ellis RB, Dan Koppen C, Dan Connolly C-G, Deion Branch WR, Matthew Slater ST,
DEFENSE: Andre Carter DE, Mark Andersen DE, James Ihedibo S, Shawn Ellis DE
I think I left someone out. That would be Wes Welker. Welker is an interesting case but not because he’s heading into free agency coming off the most haunting game of his NFL career. It’s because he’s coming off one of the best years of his career and one of the best performances by any wide out in the NFL last year. Welker was second in receiving yards behind only Calvin Johnson. He was tied for 4th in touchdowns by wide receivers, and was 5th in receptions of 20+ yards.
Clearly, Welker and his agent think his worth is closer to Calvin Johnson’s or Larry Fitzgerald’s than, say, Anquan Boldin, or this deal would already be done. The Patriots can franchise Welker for $9M this season, which could create an interesting game of chicken if Welker decides to hold out. It’s unlikely Welker holds out at 31, as he and the Patriots both know he can’t afford to miss a season or 10 games of a season at this stage in his career. Did you hear me Cliff Avril?
However, if the Patriots do franchise Welker, do they have the audacity to go out and give multi-year deals to Reggie Wayne, Brandon Lloyd, Marques Colston or Mike Wallace in the free agent market while Welker sits on a one-year deal.
The whole offseason strategy begins and ends with Wes Welker. Ironically, he’s the man who a great many feel solely responsible for the Patriots losing to the Giants in Super Bowl 46. I am not one of them.
I am not going to throw out defensive schemes or coaching strategies that Belichick needs to employ for next year, let’s save that for Gresh and Zo to do over the next nine months. Clearly Belichick knows what he’s doing on that end. You don’t need 30 years of NFL personnel experience to know that talent still wins in this league and the Patriots need more of it on defense and offense to get to New Orleans.
The road to New Orleans through the AFC is more open than Wes Welker was in that Super Bowl. You need a great coach and great quarterback to get to the big game.
Who are the franchise quarterbacks in the AFC? Only Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger have played in a Super Bowl. The second tier of quarterbacks: Philip Rivers, Matt Schaub and Joe Flacco are solid, but they have never proven to be able to carry a team all the way. There is a group of young potentials including Mark Sanchez, Andy Dalton, Jake Locker and eventually Andrew Luck, but none of them are ready now to take the next step.
As for great coaches, well, of the 16 coaches in the AFC right now only seven have won a playoff game. Of those 7, only 3 have tier 1 or tier 2 quarterbacks. That narrows the field of AFC contenders to New England, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Houston and San Diego. San Diego is coached by Norv Turner, he’s won a few playoff games but he has also had talented teams in San Diego the last four years and still manages to disappoint on a yearly basis. The fact he was not fired this season after again missing the playoffs was the biggest coaching shocker in 2011.
In the NFC, the quarterback depth alone is incredible with Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Tony Romo, Michael Vick, Matt Ryan and let’s not forget Cam Newton. That’s potentially 8 franchise quarterbacks. There is also the San Francisco 49ers, who might not have the quarterback but have a great defense, a great coach and were a fumble from Indianapolis. Of that group you have four coaches with terrific pedigrees: Coughlin (Giants) with 2 Super Bowls, McCarthy (Packers), and Payton (Saints) with one and Andy Reid, who has coached in a Super Bowl.
Give me a call Bill. I have a plan.
What to do with the Current Free Agents:
On offense, I would offer a 2-year, $2 million contract to Benjarvis Green-Ellis. He’s not a feature back and the Patriots need to give more carries to 2011 draft picks Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. Both were limited in 2011 for various reason but have high ceilings especially Vereen, who could be the 3rd down break away back that Kevin Faulk was for the last 14 years. Danny Woodhead fits into a variety of Patriot passing formations. Green-Ellis still gives them a good short yardage back, who rarely loses yardage, never fumbles and is good in the red zone.
I would say good-bye to Deion Branch unless he’s willing to take a 1-year veteran minimum contract to be a mentor and Tom Brady’s 4th or 5th wide receiver. I would re-sign either Koppen or Connolly and then backfill the offensive line with picks from the 3rd to 5th rounds of the draft.
The release of Chad Ochocinco is not the no-brainer many people think: it’s going to cost the Patriots between $1.5 and $3 million in cap space to cut him, so he still could remain a fallback if the Patriots fail to bring in any outside receivers in free agency. Slater should be re-signed and probably won’t command a lot on the open market. Brian Hoyer is a restricted free agent quarterback, the Patriots might not be willing to match an offer to Hoyer if they feel Mallet can be a backup next season. Kevin Faulk has played his last snap as a Patriot and he had a stellar career.
On Defense, the Patriots have a couple decisions to make.
Their two best pass rushers, Mark Andersen and Andre Carter, both who had double digit sack numbers last season, are free agents. Carter is coming of a season-ending injury and is 5 years older than Andersen. Andersen is probably going to get himself a decent offer beyond what the Patriots are willing to play. I would look at a one-year deal on Carter and let Andersen walk. I would say good-bye to Gary Guyton, Nate Jones, Gerard Warren, and Shaun Ellis. Antwaun Molden, James Ihedigbo, and Tracy White were key contributors to this year team and would be worth keeping to provide depth to the roster.
Needs: Outside Receiver, Defensive Line, Linebacker, Secondary
Whether the Patriots franchise Welker or sign him to multi-year contract they can probably afford two other pricey free agents and two value players that can either start or play reserve roles. The signing of DE Mario Williams would solve a lot of problems on defense IF you were positive he could stay healthy. Williams missed three games in 2010 and all but eleven in 2011. For someone who is going to command close to 55 million guaranteed and tie up most of your cap space you need to know he’ll be healthy. Also, the Patriots are not one player away from a dominant defense. If they tie a lot of money up on Williams and he gets injured again then they are stuck back with a defense similar to this year.
The 2012 free agency class is flush with receivers, defensive backs and defensive lineman. You have to assume some players are either going to be franchised or just too expensive for the Patriots taste. You can rule out Mario Williams DE (Texans), Brandon Carr CB (Chiefs), Cliff Avril DE (Lions), Calais Campbell DE (Cardinals), Brett Grimes CB (Falcons), LaRon Landry S (Redskins) Anthony Spencer OLB (Cowboys), Vincent Jackson WR (Chargers), Dwayne Bowe WR (Chiefs) and Ray Rice RB (Ravens). It’s just not going to happen.
The Patriots need to decide how they want to allocate the cap over the next two years. The salary cap should stay roughly the same through the next two seasons. Then in 2014, the new TV contracts kick in and this will push the salary caps even higher. The 2014 season might also be accompanied by an 18-game season, so it’s difficult to forecast that far out.
If they are going to spend big at one position this offseason it should be safety, and I would look at Goldson (6 Ints in 2011) or Griffin (17 career INTs), who are both play-making safeties. The Patriots lost Goldson to the 49’ers last season over probably a million dollars, so they definitely have him on their radar.
After allocating that money to safety, I would target Abraham, who had 9.5 sacks 4 forced fumbles last year, and at 33, would take a short-term deal. My second choice if Abraham was unavailable would be fellow Falcon and potential Abraham replacement Kroy Biermann. Biermann could have a career similar to Mike Vrabel, who was a reserve player in Pittsburgh before the Patriots signed him. Last year, Biermann had just one start but he had 2.5 sacks and INT and 37 tackles. He would fill the void left by Mike Wright who was injured the last two seasons. Former 6th round Patriot pick Jeremy Mincey (8 sacks, 4 FF) is also available. He’s familiar to the system and might be open to a short-term deal with his former club.
Either Manny Lawson (55 tackles), Barrett Ruud (57 tackles) or Bobby Carpenter (29 tackles) would be inexpensive pieces to add to a solid but not spectacular linebacking crew. Jermaine Cunningham’s inability to establish himself as full-time starter makes depth at linebacker a necessity either through free agency or the draft.
Once again going on the assumption Welker is here, Lloyd makes the most sense. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels coached him in Denver and in St. Louis, and Lloyd speaks very highly of McDaniels and has expressed a desire to continue to play for him. Lloyd had 70 catches this season and just missed his second straight year of 1,000 yards receiving. That being said, Lloyd is 30 years old and might want to go where the most cash is available to him. If that’s the case, it’s questionable whether the Patriots can afford to commit too much money to receiver, with Welker, Lloyd, a cap hit with Ochocinco whether he’s here or not, and don’t forget that both Gronkowski and Hernandez are free agents following the 2013 season.
The Patriots might want to lock up Gronk before the caps explode. Wayne and Manningham are other possible free agent targets, with Wayne more likely than Manningham, who will want top dollar coming off his spectacular Super Bowl. Eddie Royal also played for McDaniels in Denver. He caught just 19 passes in 8 starts in the Tim Tebow offense this past season. Royal might make more sense as a slot replacement if the Pats were to let Welker walk, as he is only 25. Cotchery had just 16 catches in limited time in Pittsburgh, but he’s a tremendous locker room guy and could be an upgrade from an aging Deion Branch.
The Pats have a lot of depth on the offensive line. Hochstein, a starter last year in Denver, might consider a return to New England. In the event that Dan Koppen goes elsewhere, Hochstein is valuable because he can play both center and guard.
Ronnie Brown struggled in Philadelphia coming off a torn ACL, and he might be worth a look if Green-Ellis gets a better offer. I can’t imagine any team stopping a Patriot offense next season with Lloyd, Welker, Hernandez, and Gronkowski as passing targets supplemented by a running game of Ridley, Vereen, Woodhead and Green-Ellis.
The Patriots toughest opponents in 2012 – the Texans, Ravens, Steelers, Jets and Chargers – all have formidable defenses. The Patriots struggled against tough defenses in 2011; they’ll need more weapons next season.