We all have them, men and women alike. Since the dawn of time, pictures of them have adorned cave walls, the insides of lockets, bedroom ceilings, computer desktops, and, if you're like me, carefully doctored photographs of the two of us at our wedding. They were stuck inside lockers, pasted on backpacks, and doodled into the margins of homework assignments Today's generation has them as the backdrops on their IPhones and have downloaded their voices as ringtones. How we worship them has changed over the years, but it's still the same thing.
Everybody has their celebrity crushes.
I've definitely had my share of dreamgirls over the years; Daphne from Scooby Doo, Ashley Banks from The Fresh Prince, CJ from Baywatch, Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer - it seems that every two or three years, a new beauty would grace my TV screen and capture my heart anew. However, in spite of all the starlets that have come and gone over the years, from Jessica Rabbit to Mila Kunis, one girl and one girl alone will forever have my heart: Saved By the Bell's Kelly Kapowski.
Kelly and I once had a bright future. She was a simple girl, and I was a simple guy. I just knew it was meant to be. Alas, she moved on, married Zack Morris, and that was that. I think that deep down, I knew we could never be, but that didn't stop me from thinking about what it would be like if I was just born seven years earlier and lived in the Bayside High School district.
Sometimes, I still wonder what could have been. Please don't tell my girlfriend.
And as Patriots fans, I think it's safe to say that we've spent the past few years with posters of a marquee pass rusher taped to our walls, dreaming about what it would be like to have a player on this team that will strike fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks and quickly make us forget the days when the Chad Hennes and Dan Orlovskys of the world had 8 seconds in the pocket to throw and made our secondary look more like a bunch of Screeches than AC Slaters. We have all entered the past few offseasons hopeful that maybe this is the year where Bill Belichick will go out and acquire the pass rusher that will once again help get this defense back to the glory days of the early 2000s. And while he always does seems to bring in a lineman or two, some of whom actually turn out to be great additions to the defense (thank you, Andre Carter), it's been a long time since I've gotten that warm, fuzzy feeling I used to get when I saw Kelly in her Bayside Tigers cheerleader outfit.
Well once again, here we find ourselves - another offseason, and we still need a pass rush. The good news is that there are some very solid players that are about to become free agents that are right up Belichick's alley: fast, strong, versatile ends that will fit perfectly into New England's defensive scheme and won't come with a huge price tag. Of course, the bad news is that this is a dance we have done before in years past, and know all too well what it feels like to be stuck by the punch bowl all alone. With four picks in the first two rounds of the draft, the Patriots could definitely look to bolster the pass rush there instead. But with the talent that going to be available, I think that this is finally the year New England makes a move and brings in some proven veteran help along the defensive line.
I also once thought that I was going to move to LA to be with Kelly as soon as I turned 18. So I don't know how much faith you can put in my judgment.
OUT OF MY LEAGUE
These linemen either won't be available after re-signing with their original teams, will simply be too expensive to bring in, or aren't the right kind of player to help out the Patriots.
Mario Williams. Williams is a monster, and exactly the kind of versatile player that Bill Belichick covets. Houston has a very difficult decision to make in regards to Wiliams, as he is going to want big money and franchising him is likely to cost Houston upwards of $25 million. Plus, as I mentioned in an earlier article, Arian Foster is set to become a free agent as well, and the Texans need to prioritize locking him up. There is only one franchise tag to go around, and ultimately I think that Williams gets it as the Texans work out a long-term deal for Foster. A lot of experts will disagree with me, but the way I see it, you simply don't let a first round pick and 2-time All Pro walk after he finishes his rookie contract. Plus, he's going to want the kind of money the Patriots probably aren't going to pay. Every time New England has offered huge money to bring a marquee defensive player (I'm looking at you, Adalius Thomas) it hasn't worked out, so I don't see them breaking the bank for Williams. I'd love to eat crow in a few months and say I was wrong, but I just don't see it.
Calais Campbell. If I had a laboratory in my apartment and I got to Victor Frankenstein my own personal defensive end, it would be Calais Campbell. He's 6'8", 300 pounds, and an absolute force of nature. He's still in his prime and would instantly make the Patriots pass rush formidable. He also has the versatility to play anywhere on the line and can rush in off the edge in a pinch. He's a stand-up guy as well and would be positive contributor to the New England locker room. However, the Cardinals are already on the clock figuring out how to keep him on the roster for several more years. Worst case, he gets franchised, but more likely he gets a well-deserved deal that makes him one of the better paid ends in the league. He's the kind of guy I'd snatch up the second he hits the market, but I don't think he'll get that far. Look for the Cards to slap the tag on him and/or work out a long term deal very soon.
Sione Pouha. The Jets simply don't have enough depth in their front seven right now to let a player of Pouha's caliber go. The franchise is pretty much a mess right now, so you could make any number of very valid cases as to what their number one offseason priority is - but in my opinion step one should be securing his future and ensuring that he doesn't go anywhere, let alone to a division rival. Plus, Pouha is a nose tackle and not really the edge rusher that New England needs, so I'm not sure they would even pursue him on the off chance that he does become a free agent.
Antonio Garay. Garay will likely be available, as I don't see the Chargers entering a bidding war for him. He is also a Pro Bowl caliber player that took a step back in 2011 and may thus be available for medium money. However, he is also a pure Nose Tackle, and the Patriots already have one of the best in the game in Vince Wilfork. The Patriots need an end or an interior lineman that can transition to the outside, and Garay isn't that player. He just isn't a good fit for the team.
SO YOU'RE TELLING ME THERE'S A CHANCE...
Free Agents that may be available, but are more likely to either re-sign with their old team or go elsewhere for more money than the Patriots are willing to spend.
Why he will play for the Patriots in 2012: Avril is an explosive edge pass rusher, which is precisely what New England needs. The Lions are currently in the process of reworking Calvin Johnson's contract to keep him with the team long-term, and Matthew Stafford is due some significant bonus money coming off a very solid 2011 campaign. Avril has openly expressed his displeasure at the thought of getting franchised, so when all is said and done there may not be enough money in Detroit left to pay him what he feels he is owed. If he does become a free agent, he is definitely a player New England should target.
Why he won't play for the Patriots in 2012: Avril is a key cog in a Detriot defense that is built around a formidable pass rush. Avril's presence makes Ndamukong Suh that much more effective, and I have a hard time believing that Cliff Avril isn't in Jim Schwartz's long-term plans. Even though Avril won't be happy with the franchise tag, that doesn't necessarily mean the Lions won't franchise him anyway. When all is said and done, all signs point to him staying a Lion.
Overall: If he's available, the Patriots should pursue him aggressively. However, that's a big if. Avril will probably be in a Lions uniform next year and for several years to come.
Why he will play for the Patriots in 2012: Jones is hands down one of the best interior pass rushers in the NFL. He gets tremendous push off the line and has the kind of explosive first step that puts him upfield and in the quarterback's face almost immediately, dirtying the pocket and preventing quarterbacks from stepping up to throw. Players like Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes would thrive blitzing in behind Jones, and he's no slouch at clogging up running lanes either. I'm not sure what Tennessee is looking to do with their offseason, but I imagine that they will be in the hunt for a quarterback (unless someone here wants to try and make a case for Matt Hasselbeck) and I can envision them letting Jones go.
Why he won't play for the Patriots in 2012: Tennessee moved Jones out to defensive end last year, where he struggled. This leads me to believe that Jones is more of an interior lineman than a pure pass rusher that can come in off the edge. Between Wilfork and Kyle Love, I'm not sure if New England will look to interior linemen first as opposed to defensive ends that are a little more versatile. Jones is also injury prone, which can be hugely detrimental to the chemistry of the line.
Overall: I'd like to see him at least come in and work out for the Patriots. He's definitely a 4-3 kind of lineman, but if anybody can get him to play up to his potential, it's Belichick. I think he ultimately stays in Tennessee or goes elsewhere, but I hope the Patriots at least kick the tires here.
MOM, DAD...THERE'S SOMEONE I'D LIKE YOU TO MEET.
These are the free agents that I think would make the most sense in a Patriots uniform, and players I want to come to the team. Like, reeeeeeeaaaallly bad.
Why he will play for the Patriots in 2012. The Colts are cleaning house, they are about to invest a lot of money in a quarterback (named Manning or otherwise), and owe Dwight Freeney $14 million this year. Combine that with a reported switch to the 3-4 defense, and odds are good that Mathis is going to be available. And if the NFL were a reality show where a bunch of complete failures were put in a house together with cameras on them nonstop as the absurd drama unfolded, Bill Belichick would have hooked up with Mathis on the first night and spent the rest of the show following him around like a lovesick puppy and crying when he felt "neglected." Belichick LOVES Mathis - and for good reason. Mathis is one of the league's best edge rushers, he still has some good years left, and he instantly makes any defensive front better. He specializes in rushing the passer, but he's no slouch in run defense either. Lining Mathis up next to Big Vince could cause all kinds of problems for opposing offensive lines. He's a hard worker and is used to playing for a contender. He would make a fantastic Patriot.
Why he won't play for the Patriots in 2012: I really want Robert Mathis to be a Patriot. I think he would be a perfect fit here. I lay awake nights dreaming of a defensive line with Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, a healthy Andre Carter, and Robert Mathis in it. And because of that, we probably won't get him - I'm cursed like that. Other than that, the only reason I don't see the Pats signing Mathis is because he simply doesn't want to play for a rival (I haven't heard him express his desire one way or another). There is also the question of whether or not he would be effective in a 3-4 defense should New England decide to continue running that scheme. He also may get a lot of money to go somewhere else (like Washington), and if the deal that Mario Williams ends up getting dictates the pulse of the DE Free Agent Market, the price for Mathis's services might be too rich for New England's blood.
Overall: This move makes a lot of sense to me. There is definitely the question of whether Mathis will make sense as a 4-3 vs. 3-4 defensive end, or what New England's base defense will even be next year. As always, what goes on inside of Bill Belichick's head is a total mystery. But the bottom line is that the Pats need a pass rusher, and there is going to be a very good one on the market that Belichick loves. He's old enough so that he ultimately won't come with a Mario Williams-sized price tag, and he is pretty much what this team needs. I expect New England to be right in the conversation when it comes to Mathis's final landing spot.
Why he will play for the Patriots in 2012: Abraham is the kind of player Bill Belichick has signed in the past - an aging veteran who is still productive and will come to a contender for a chance to win a Super Bowl after being released from a team that isn't willing to pay him the money he has left on his contract. Abraham hasn't dropped off too far in his production, but he isn't going to get the $8 million he's owed from Atlanta next year. I think Abraham is the kind of player that could be a monster in the right defense, and there are few coaches better than Belichick at getting the most out of his players. He's a defensive end who doesn't quite have the size to move to the interior of the line, but as a situational pass rusher on a snap count, he would be a beast.
Why he won't play for the Patriots in 2012: Abraham is fairly old, and he isn't going to set this team up with a great pass rusher for years to come. This defense is young, and youth may continue to be the name of the game in 2012. Abraham also has strong ties to Atlanta and will want to stay with the team, who I'm guessing will try to restructure his contract to keep him. Abraham is still Atlanta's best pass rusher, and I'm not sure they'll be willing to let him go.
Overall: A lot of New England's decisions up front depend on what they do with Andre Carter, who is no lock to return and repeat his Pro Bowl caliber 2011 season. But if Carter and New England Part ways, I see Abraham as the kind of player Haynesworth was supposed to be last year and more. I think New England will reach out to Abraham and I can see him signing a 1-2 year deal should he be available.
IF NEITHER OF US ARE MARRIED BY THE TIME WE'RE 40...
I can see any one of these lesser FAs brought into camp to compete for a roster spot. I can also see one of them surprising the coaching staff and working his way into New England's starting lineup.