It's been a while since we've posted on Foxboro Blog. You can blame part of that on the fact that the gap between the Super Bowl and the start of free-agency is the dullest time of the NFL calendar, unless you happen to be a combine nut. The other part is pure busyness as I've been working my tail off on a project that will redefine Foxboro Blog as well as the rest of the Bloguin Network. But enough on that topic, let's dive into the meat of what this post is truly about.
Looking back at the Patriots' past three seasons, in which they were legit Super Bowl contenders and managed to fall short of the goal, certain themes seem to be woven into the fabric of the team's shortcomings. For starters, the Patriots secondary continues to be a seive. The "bend but don't break" philosophy serves the team fairly well in the regular season, but hasn't translated to post-season success. Outside of the 2011 AFC Championship, there haven't been many times when the defense put their mark on a post-season game. Even then, the defense allowed the Ravens to march all the way down the field before coming up with a semi-miraculous touchdown strip. New England's defense needs to be strong enough to withstand a sub-par day by the offense. The Jets, Giants, and Ravens all slowed down Tom Brady just enough, and the defense has not been there to do the same to the Pats' opponent.
It's hard to believe I'm saying this given how many weapons the Patriots have, but the team's post-season losses can also be attributed to a lack of versatility by the offense. Granted, if the Patriots had Rob Gronkowski out there in Super Bowl XLVI and the 2012 AFC title game, things may have gone differently for them. However, as good as they are, Welker, Hernandez, and Gronk don't possess the type of "deadly" threat that Randy Moss brought to the team back in the day, or that Torrey Smith brings to Baltimore.
Finally, the lack of a pass-rush has also been a nagging problem for this team. Some of this may be scheme-related as you can't blame Belichick for being hesitant to send in the calvary and leave the team's weak secondary exposed. Chandler Jones' injury also didn't help the Patriots' cause when it came to pressuring the QB either. Still, in a league where passing is at an all-time high and defensive backs are already playing with one hand tied behind their back, disrupting the passing game at its source should be a top priority for teams.
Of course mistakes like turnovers and dropped passes have contributed heavily to New England's playoff woes, but there's little the team can do about that in March. With free-agency right on the horizon, and a boat-load of cap space in a buyer's market thanks to the ingenious Tom Brady contract extension, it's time for the Pats to patch these holes and position the team for a title run in 2013. The Patriots have three big unrestricted free-agents of their own, none of which received the franchise tag designation. The rebuilding process starts with them and then branches out to the players on other teams.
Priority #1 - Aqib Talib
It seems a bit strange to be putting Talib, with his character issues and lack of durability this post-season, ahead of Wes Welker, but that's how badly the Patriots' secondary needs a playmaker like him. The drop-off between Talib and his replacement is enormous. When Talib was on the field, the Patriots defense went from awful to above-average. It was no surprise to me that when he left the field in the conference title game, that Joe Flacco begain looking like a Super Bowl MVP. While not a "shut-down" corner, Talib is able to handle his own and allows the rest of the secondary to concentrate on plugging holes elsewhere.
I would say the outlook on his return is bright. The Patriots are high on him and he seemed to enjoy his brief time in New England. Hopefully his character and injury questions keep the market price for him reasonable, in which case I'd see his return as a slam dunk for both sides.
Priority #2 - Wes Welker
At what price? That's the big question surrounding Wes Welker. The man embodies everything the Patriots stand for and there's not a Pats fan on this planet that wants to see him anywhere but New England. Still, if Welker intends on receiving a top-flight wide receiver salary, he will almost certainly find himself in another uniform. At the end of the day, emotions can't be allowed to cloud the Patriots judgement and they need to do what's in the best long-term interest of the team.
Unlike Talib, who has a chasm behind him in the depth-chart, it's not unreasonable to think that a lot of Welker's production may be able to be compensated for by Aaron Hernandez and Julian Edelman. It's also possible that a promising slot receiver like St. Louis's Danny Amendola could be had for a cut-rate price compared to Welker. Ultimately, if the Patriots lose out on Welker, it will mean that they have another $8 million or so to spend in free-agency elsewhere. It may not be the worst thing for the Pats to lose out on Welker and replace him with another top-tier free agent like Mike Wallace or Greg Jennings.
Priority #3 - Sebastian Vollmer
Depending on how crazy the market gets, Sebass may be the most likely on this list to not return to Foxboro. Given Dante Scarnecchia's penchant for turning offensive line straw into gold, and Vollmer's back and knee issues, I could see the Patriots being hesitant to pay out premium dollars for a right tackle. In a perfect world, New England brings back Vollmer on a reasonably-priced deal and keeps the O-line as a point of strength instead of a question mark. I think there are a lot of teams who could be interested though and could potentially drive the price out of the range that the Pats are comfortable with. Not that I wish ill on any of our players, but from a team-building perspective, Vollmer's recent knee scope may make teams think twice before offering a top-of-the-market deal to him.
And now a look at the non-Patriot free-agents...
Priority #4 - Nnamdi Asomugha
The Patriots made a smart move by refraining from participating in the Nnamdi Asomugha sweepstakes a few years back. Asomugha never lived up to his giant contract, which is why is likely to find himself on the free-agent block. A Talib/Asomugha pairing could be exactly what the Patriots need to fix what ails their secondary. The Patriots should have the cap space to offer both players reasonable contracts, and given the sleepless nights every Pats fan has had for the past three years due to the secondary, I see no reason not to lock both of these players up.
Priority #5 - Ed Reed
The Patriots secondary is in desperate need of some toughness and leadership. Luckily, those two things happen to be Ed Reed's middle two names. Not only does this deal make me giddy when I think about Belichick in Reed standing side by side in cut-off sleeved hoodies, but the fact that it would be a demoralizing blow to the Ravens is icing on the cake. You think Vinatieri going to the Colts was touch to swallow for us? Multiply that by 10x if Ed Reed ends up finishing his career with the Pats. If Baltimore is simply too cash-strapped to offer a competitive deal, the Patriots would be well-served in bringing Reed on board to play the role of Rodney Harrison 2.0.
Priority #6 - Mike Wallace
The only way this happens is if Wes Welker is no longer a Patriot, so there's a very big part of me that hopes New England never makes this deal happen. Still, if New England no longer finds themselves on the hook for the $8-9 million or so that Welker may command, it only makes sense to up the ante a little bit and make a play for a burner like Wallace. In a vaccum, you could make the argument that a Wallace/Hernandez/Gronk offense is likely more dangerous than a Welker/Herndandez/Gronk one. However, it would be more costly and in the end, I'd like to see Welker retained with that extra cash being focused on the defensive side of the ball.
Priority #7 - Greg Jennings/Victor Cruz
You can pretty much ditto everything I said above if the Pats miss out on both Welker and Wallace. Either of these players would give a much-needed vertical dimension to the offense.
Priority #8 - Dwight Freeney
I think Freeney ends up taking more money for a change to play with Peyton again in Denver, but there's no denying that the Patriots could use the pass-rush that he brings to the game.
Priority #9 - Osi Umenyiora
The reported attitude and money-seeking attitude may make Osi seem like a bad fit for the Patriots. Still, if the finances can be worked out, the Patriots have a good record of doing well with former malcontents. Umenyiora would certainly boost the New England pass-rush and provide verteran stability along the line.
Priority #10 - Anthony Fasano
The Patriots' offense is extremely reliant on the tight end position and, unfortunately, their starting tight end duo does't have a strong track record of durability. While Hooman filled in admirably in Gronkowski's absence, there is no denying the need for another offensively-potent tight end. Hernandez and Gronk both spent large chunks of time on the injured list last season. If they were able to be replaced with a back-up of Fasano's caliber, I think we may have seen some different outcomes in several of New England's defeats. Plus, can you imagine the chaos that Belichick would create out of a three tight end set featuring Gronk, Hernandez, and Fasano?
That about wraps up my take on free-agency. If the Patriots get at least two of their three free-agents back and can sign two others, I think the foundation would be set for a Super Bowl run in 2013. Talib/Welker/Asomugha/Reed? Yes please. Talib/Vollmer/Reed/and a deep-threat wide receiver? Sign me up. The Patriots have the money and the clout to make something like that happen. Here's hoping Christmas comes nine months early in New England...