Tom E. Curran offers five things he believes the Patriots should embrace this offseason to keep this defending Team of the Decade from traipsing into mediocrity.
1. KEEP STRONG POINTS STRONG
That means they have to convince right guard Stephen Neal -- a pending free agent -- to forego the retirement he’s considering and make him a nice, short-term offer that bridges the time until they find a suitable replacement. The money spent on Nick Kaczur last August might have been better spent on Neal, since Kaczur, well, can’t play at a consistent NFL level anymore. But that ship’s sailed already. The fear should be that, if Neal retires, the Patriots will be weak on the right side of the offensive line. And if it’s not Kaczur at right tackle, then it would be Sebastian Vollmer . . . and Matt Light would be spending another season trying to hold down the left side, where Vollmer ought to be.
The best player in the secondary in 2009 for the Patriots was cornerback Leigh Bodden, who the Pats signed to a one-year deal. He’ll soon be a free agent as well unless the Patriots can convince him to take an offer before free agency begins March 5. That seems unlikely, since Bodden came here on a one-year deal for a reason: To bolster his marketability with a good season. Still, it’s a real dice roll if they let Bodden get to free agency because his equal in coverage has not revealed himself to be on the roster.
3. EYE THE FUTURE ON THE DL
If I were the Patriots, my biggest concern with Vince Wilfork wouldn’t be how upset he is if he gets franchised. It would be watching him swell up like a tick if he stays away from offseason conditioning programs and goes into a funk because he doesn’t get a new deal. If he does blow up this offseason -- and he was trending toward absurdly large at the end of 2009 -- it will be a major upset if he can make it through 2010 without a spate of injuries. And that won’t just hurt the Patriots, it would hurt Wilfork in the eyes of prospective new employers. That’s one reason I’d be very slow to offer Wilfork anything more than a four-year deal that didn’t have very specific weight clauses.
And I’d put defensive-line coach Pepper Johnson on some kind of an incentive program to make sure the Myron Pryor/Ron Brace/Mike Wright troika was prepared to play very capably in 2010, because they may very well be the anchors in the middle of the defense. If Brace -- a second-round pick in 2009 ticketed as Wilfork insurance -- doesn’t come through, it will be one of the most damaging draft mistakes the Patriots make under Belichick.
4. CHANGE OFFENSIVE IDENTITY
That’s why the Patriots need to genuinely commit to becoming a more balanced, ball-control offense in 2010. Their strength is gone. Welker isn’t coming back for the start of the year and when he does come back he won’t be the 2009 edition. And until Brandon Tate shows he can play more than a few snaps without an ACL blowing, don’t presume he’s a third receiver. This changeable offense that could grind it one week and air it the next has to lean on its backs and find some tight ends. Trouble is, they’ve gotten out of whack with their personnel -- a 34-year-old running back in Kevin Faulk, two 33-year-olds in Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor, and 26-year-old Laurence Maroney who needs Friday tutorials from the head coach on how to play the position four years into his career. And, once Benjamin Watson goes to chase his rainbow in free agency, they’ll be down to Chris Baker as their only experienced tight end. They need to draft a tight end and a running back with one of their first four picks -- Jermaine Gresham from Oklahoma, Aaron Hernandez from Florida or Dennis Pitta from BYU. Make him a staple pass-catcher in this offense. And Jahvid Best from Cal would be a very good get for them as well as an understudy playmaker for an offense that seems to be losing imagination.
- Andy Hart looks at ways the Patriots could be better from within, breaking the list down into three categories: guys who should be better, guys who could be better and guys who’ll likely enter 2010 as total question marks.
- Ask PFW, Part I: Previewing free agency.
- Ask PFW, Part II: More free agent talk.
- Ian Rapoport explains why slapping a transition tag on Leigh Bodden wouldn't work.
- Christopher Price notes how the Wilfork family is paying close attention to the market. Wilfork's wife Bianca was tweeting about Raiders' kicker Janikowski's huge deal.
- Mike Reiss answers his weekly reader mailbag, full of Vince Wilfork tag talk and Pats free agent possibilities.
- WEEI mocks the Draft with New England picking DE/OLB Ricky Sapp (Clemson) in the first round.
- Tom E. Curran notes the Seahawks say they won't cut Deion Branch.
- Kerry J. Byrne (Cold Hard Football Facts) The Super Bowl quarterback bloodbath. He ranks the 20 Super Bowl QBs who have played in more than one Super Bowl.
- Tim Graham (ESPN) Tom Brady is no Jim Plunkett. And Peyton Manning is no Tom Brady.
- USA Today New England Patriots Team Report.
- Tim Graham (ESPN) Four big questions in the AFC East.
- Vic Carucci (NFL.com) Peppers could bring spice to new team in 2010. Thinks Pats are a strong contender.
- Gregg Rosenthal (ProFootballTalk) New England's free agency decisions.
- Tom Pedulla (USA Today) NFL's Franchise of the Decade: New England Patriots.
- Peter King (SI) MMQB Tuesday edition: Free agent loophole, HoF nuggets, Lombardi tour.
- Adam Teicher (Kansas City Star) Chiefs' Cassel has expectations as high as his salary.
Bill Williamson (ESPN) The Oakland Raiders and Sebastian Janikowski reached agreement Tuesday on the richest kicking contract in NFL history, a four-year, $16 million contract with $9 million guaranteed. Think Gostkowski noticed that report yet?
Wm. David Cornwell Sr. (Huffington Post) There will not be a lockout in the NFL. This former assistant general counsel for the NFL and prominant sports attorney thinks both sides have too much at stake to initiate a work stoppage. Good read.