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With the Patriots being blown out by the Ravens during Wild Card weekend, there have been many speculating that their reign may be over. It’s an easy statement to be made. After a decade of dominance, New England struggled this season, barely won the AFC East and then were dismantled at home 33-14 by Baltimore to end their season. There were more down’s then up’s and now Pats fans have to wonder: is this truly the end?
New England has had one hell of a decade. Three Super Bowl titles in four appearances. Their back-to-back Super Bowl wins were a first since 1999. Countless Pro Bowlers came from New England and one of the greatest head coaches of all-time made his mark in Foxboro. Still, the NFL has seen this before.
The first modern NFL dynasty was the Green Bay Packers, winning the first two Super Bowls. When Vince Lombardi left for the Redskins, the cheeseheads went almost 30 years before Brett Favre took them to back-to-back Super Bowls, winning Super Bowl XXXI. The Dolphins went back-to-back in the early 70’s, including their perfect run, but when Bob Griese and Larry Csonka left, the team struggled. Two Super Bowl appearances in the 80’s were both blowouts and Miami has yet to be on the big stage again. The mid-to-late 70’s were dominated by a Pittsburgh team that won four Super Bowls in six years. It took them 26 years before they beat the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL for their record-tying fifth Super Bowl. Speaking of records, the 49ers controlled the 80s and 90s behind Joe Montana and Steve Young winning a record setting fifth title in Super Bowl XXIX. One year later, the Cowboys capped off three Super Bowls in four years to win their fifth. Neither the Cowboys or Redskins have made a Super Bowl since 1996. Even the Broncos snuck out two rings in the late 90’s, giving John Elway the perfect sendoff, but since a carousel of quarterbacks has had no luck.
The only similarity between all these teams? Every dynasty came of an end, and hard. When teams went down, it took decades to rebuild and get back to the top. Some have yet to recover (sorry Dolphin’s fans). Others have gone through horrible slumps, but are slowly getting it together (how ’bout them Cowboys). So are the Patriots next on this list? They have the opportunity to rebuild and get back in the hunt soon and they need to start now.
New England has several issues they need to deal with. Their linebacking corp is a major weakness for the defense and has allowed running backs to break free for major gains. However, the defensive line was not stellar as well. A reliable pass rusher is needed, two if possible, to get needed pressure. The secondary gave up big plays. but seemed to be getting it together late in the season. New England’s running game was non-existent at times and with Wes Welker possibly missing time next season, a number two receiver might need to be brought in.
But this all costs money and the draft can be hit or miss. Even though next season might be uncapped picking up free agents for a long term plan might be tricky. The draft is where to look, but a mid-first round choice can go any way.
With that mid first round pick, New England will be able to snag a young linebacker, such as TCU’s Jerry Hughes or Florida’s pass rush expert Carlos Dunlap. There is a chance that Alabama’s Rolando McClain could fall into New England’s pick territory, but depending on how players do at the combine, it will change many players selection spots. This year’s draft should be defense heavy, but there are only a few super stars out there. New England should avoid trading down like they have in the past and just take the best available player, someone who can come in and have immediate impact.
The Patriots will have to start with their offensive line this offseason. Logan Mankins, Stephen Neal and Nick Kazur are free agents and New England will have to evaluate them to see if they still fit the teams direction. Behind the o-line, The Patriots should look for a free agent running back that can work with Laurence Maroney to create a smash-and-dash tandem. The one that comes to mind is Ronnie Brown, but he will most likely receive a franchise tag from Miami. Should Cleveland be dumb enough to let Jerome Harrison walk, New England might need to take a look. Other running backs such as Pierre Thomas, Cadillac Williams and Darren Sproles could be available, but expect those players current teams to do what it takes to retain them.
For receivers, several options such as Brandon Marshall, Vincent Jackson and Miles Austin will all be restricted free agents, much like many possible free agents this offseason. However, with the Broncos looking to get rid of Marshall, New England could take a run at him in a trade and groom him to be the next Randy Moss. At only 26, he could be a great long term investment for the Patriots. Tight Ends like Owen Daniels and Tony Scheffler will also be out there, who could be used to fill in for Ben Watson, a free agent of his own.
On defense, retaining Vince Wilfork is a must. That was why Richard Seymour was sent to Oakland last year. Still, he needs a better pass rusher playing besides him. Maybe bringing back Seymour is an option and was a plan Belichick had all along (sneaky-sneaky). Still the best guy on the market will be Julius Peppers. New England tried last season to get him, but the franchise tag got in the way. With an uncapped season, New England will be able to afford to match any offer Pepper gets, including a Carolina franchise tag. Other like Kyle Vanden-Bosch, Elvis Dumervil and Aaron Kampman might be available, but Peppers should be option number one.
There are plenty of options in free agency this year, however, with it being an uncapped year, many guys who would have been unrestricted free agents will now become restricted. Even though Robert Kraft will open his wallet for a few players, New England, like other teams, will probably not be financially able to stack up a Pro Bowl squad. It is possible that New England can fill several spots via free agency, but the draft will have to do the rest of the work. With guys like Notre Dame’s receiver Golden Tate and Cal’s running back Jahvid Best lingering around New England’s selection, there will be no shortage of possible additions to the Patriots.
The main problem NFL dynasties have had in the past was relying on it’s older players. Once they went, the team struggled. New England faced similar problems when they lost Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and traded Richard Seymour and their defense struggled to get by. This offseason will be an important one, because if they can not turn their troubles around then New England will not be a favorable destination for free agents. By striking gold on free agents and draft now, instead of stock piling picks for the future, a New England turn around could come as soon as next year.
This offseason, there will be 31 other teams competing with New England to score in the draft and grab the best free agents. The uncapped season will cause a spending frenzy for some teams and New England might have to follow suit, so they can compete. They are only two years removed from their last Super Bowl, but if they don’t right the ship soon, they could be on the outside looking in for a long time. Just ask the San Francisco.