Patriots not as far away as you might think
After watching Seattle dismantle Denver in the Super Bowl, it would be easy for a Patriots fan to overreact. The simple logic is sort of scary – if the Seahawks put a 43-8 whipping on the Broncos, what would they have done to the Pats, who weren’t really close to winning the AFC championship game in Denver?
Following that logic, it seems like New England isn’t close to winning a fourth Super Bowl, and that the window has already closed on the Tom Brady championship era. But that would be an oversimplification.
Yes, Seattle, and San Francisco, were playing on a different level at the end of the season. The NFC championship matchup between those two looked like the varsity compared to the JV of the AFC title game. The Patriots have work to do in order to bridge that gap – players to re-sign, rookies to develop, free agents to bring in, and draftees to discover – but it’s not an impossible task.
First of all, the Seahawks were a bad matchup for the Broncos. Seattle suffocated all the areas of the field where Denver likes to breathe. And once again Peyton Manning didn’t adjust when the going got tough. So the gap between the NFC powers and the AFC elite isn’t quite as big as that final score suggests.
The pertinent question here in New England is how do the Patriots build the bridge? The common knee-jerk reaction after watching Seattle’s dominant defense
is that New England has to improve defensively. And the common perception before the Super Bowl was that the Pats needed to load up on offensive weapons to maximize Brady’s talents. The truth, as it usually does, lies somewhere in the middle.
New England needs to bring in the most talented players it can find. Ideally that would be a cornerback, a pass-rushing specialist and a big pass catcher, but the real ideal is that the talent is top-end. And the reality is the Patriots have already been trying to do that.
Bill Belichick still believes in the importance of depth and the bottom third of the roster. If he didn’t, his team never would have survived all the injuries it suffered this season, let alone been one of the last four teams standing. But he’s also been trying to acquire, or keep, the high-end talent. That’s why he took a chance on Aqib Talib’s character, brought in Danny Amendola, signed Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to a pair of massive contracts, and used second-round picks on gifted athletes like Jamie Collins and Aaron Dobson.
Of course, some of those decisions proved to be disastrous, but it seems like Belichick is recognizing the need to invest in top talent (now if it would only stay healthy and legal) and in the kind of athletes (speedy linebackers, tall receivers) you need in the NFL these days.
So, where does that approach lead the Patriots to this offseason? The first stop should be Talib. Sure, we’d all feel a lot better if he could stay healthy for the whole season, or at least a whole conference championship game, but he’s one of those top-end difference makers. If it takes using a franchise tag on him, Belichick should do it.
The next big question is Vince Wilfork and his $11 million cap hit. The best-case scenario is a restructured deal (aka pay cut), and Wilfork might do that for the Pats. But even if he doesn’t, the Patriots should find a way to take the hit and pay the man. Yes, he’s coming off an Achilles injury, yes he’s 32 years old, but he is a rare talent, and that’s what it takes to win in the biggest games.
If Talib is the No. 1 free agent on New England’s radar, then Julian Edelman is No. 1A, at least from a fan’s perspective. Edelman was great this year (105 catches, 1,056 yards), and if he didn’t produce at that level the Pats would not have been 12-4, but he is not a rare talent like a Talib or Wilfork. He’s very good, and it would be great to have him back, but New England can’t break the bank signing him.
Edelman’s importance is also because of the young receivers already on New England’s roster – Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce. The biggest jump for NFL players usually happens from year one to year two, and all three of them showed, in different ways, they may make that jump. Dobson took significant strides during the year. Thompkins was great early before fading down the stretch, but he did have to work extra hours in preseason just to make the team. And even though Boyce showed the least promise, his mental errors might be just the kind of thing that can be fixed during a full offseason with the team.
And don’t forget, the Patriots weren’t just young at the receiver spot, they were one of the youngest teams in the NFL in general. So the maturation process should also impact the defense as rookies like Collins and Logan Ryan, and second-year players like Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower, continue to improve.
As far as other free agents are concerned, New England doesn’t have the money to land a big name, but it should look for someone who can impact the top third of the roster. And the Pats should also keep the high draft picks they currently own (their own first-, second- and third-rounders) in order to bring in as much talent as possible. Because there is a gap between New England and another Super Bowl, but a little bit of talent can bridge it.
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 369-3341 or on Twittter @timosullivan20.)