Make no mistake the version of the Patriots that was eviscerated, 33-14, by the Ravens yesterday at Gillette Stadium and responsible for the worst playoff defeat since Bill Belichick took over as coach in 2000 will not be back intact. It can't be. This team was not good enough to compete for a Super Bowl.
This team lived off the reputation of its predecessors. We believed they were better than they were because of the uniforms and helmets.
"It's not the Patriots uniform that makes players play the Patriot Way," said quarterback Tom Brady on WEEI this morning.
This will be the most important offseason of the Belichick era. It's the tipping point for the Patriots. If they're not able to retool this offseason then their reign is over.
There are 16 Patriots who are in the final years of their contracts. Among that group are nose tackle Vince Wilfork, cornerback Leigh Bodden, running back Kevin Faulk, defensive end Jarvis Green, tight end Benjamin Watson, placekicker Stephen Gostkowski, and starting guards Logan Mankins and Stephen Neal.
The Patriots catch a little bit of a break with the uncapped 2010 season. That pushed the threshold for unrestricted free agency from four years to six years, so Gostkowski and Mankins will be restricted free agents. The Patriots can tender them so that if another team signs them to an offer sheet and the Patriots decline to match they'll get a draft pick compensation. In order to get a first-round pick, the Patriots would have to offer both players one-year deals for $2.62 million. If they wanted a first-round and a third-round pick, the tender would be $3.27 million.
Mankins carried a base salary of $1.4 million this season and Gostkowski made just over a $1 million.
Also by losing in the first-round, the Patriots are not part of the "Final Eight" teams in the playoffs. The "Final Eight" can only sign as many free agents as they lose and the first-year salaries of the incoming free agents can not exceed the first-year salaries the departing free agents received from their new teams.
With that setup, here are five off-season priorities for the Patriots:
1. Sign Vince Wilfork -- Buckle up for an offseason full of Wilfork stories. Wilfork is the Patriots' best defensive lineman, whether he is playing nose tackle or defensive end, and deserves to be paid as such. After boycotting organized team activities prior to the start of this season, he put aside his contract stalemate to play out a horrible six-year rookie deal, making $2.2 million.
Now, he wants to get paid. Wilfork already served notice yesterday that there will be no repeat of that scenario for 2010. "When I sign a contract I'll play," said Wilfork.
2. Upgrade at linebacker -- The most glaring weakness on the Patriots was their lack of a consistent pass rush. Tully Banta-Cain, whose contract is up, finished with 10 sacks, but he's not a game-changer and can be a liability in the run game. Outside linebacker Adalius Thomas, who is scheduled to make $4.9 million in base salary next season, is not going to be back and neither will free agent Derrick Burgess, who was not worth trading a third-round and a fifth-round pick.
The Patriots could take a run at Julius Peppers, but he won't come cheap. He made $16.7 million this season as a franchise player, plus Peppers seems to have softened his stance on escaping Carolina. Luckily for the Patriots this is a deep outside linebacker/defensive draft crop. The Patriots will have four picks in the top 54 of this year's draft. They'll select No. 22 in the first round and have three second round picks -- their own (No. 54 overall), plus Jacksonville's (No. 42 or No. 43, pending a coin flip with the Broncos) and Tennessee's (No. 48 or No. 49, pending a coin-flip with San Francisco).
It has also become clear that Gary Guyton, who has struggled to consistently defeat blocks in the running game, is not an every-down 3-4 inside linebacker.
3. Find a third option in the passing game -- The decision to let Jabar Gaffney go and sign Joey Galloway and Greg Lewis undercut the Patriots' offense all season. It was painfully obvious against Baltimore that the team needs another reliable option in the passing game, whether it's drafting a Dustin Keller-esque tight end or signing a veteran wide receiver like Antonio Bryant.
After tearing the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee, it's more than likely that Wes Welker starts the 2010 season on the physically-unable-to-perform list, which would require him to sit out the first six weeks. Julian Edelman is a suitable replacement in the slot, but the Patriots have to find someone opposite Randy Moss who can make teams pay, so he's not double-teamed and taken out of games like he was by Baltimore, which put safety Ed Reed over the top most of the day. Would the Cardinals take one of the Patriots' second-round picks for Anquan Boldin?
4. Bring back Bodden -- Bodden was the Patriots' best secondary player all season long and tied for the team lead in interceptions. He signed a one-year, $2.25 million deal that prevents him from being franchised. With Shawn Springs likely to retire or be released, the loss of Bodden would leave the Patriots with Darius Butler and Jonathan Wilhite as their starters in what is an already susceptible secondary. Bodden is not an elite corner, but he is a notch below and fits extremely well into the Patriots system.
The Patriots learned the hard way with Asante Samuel that you can't cheap out at that position, and Bodden said yesterday that he'd love to return to the Patriots.
"I would love to come back here. It's a great group of guys. I really bonded with the secondary, playing with an offense with Tom Brady and Randy Moss, one of the best of all-time, you know just a lot of great players, and I would love to be a part of it and help come back next year and go further in the playoffs than we did this year."
5. Repave the Patriot Way -- The Patriots for years were the definition of gridiron gestalt, but something was clearly amiss this year. The locker room lacked direction and leadership. There were too many Hoodie Hessians on this team, aging veterans brought in by Belichick to plug holes who didn't drink the Kool-Aid.
At the end of this season, there were just four players on the roster who had been around for all three Super Bowl titles and 11 players who had won a Super Bowl in New England, that number figures to get smaller if Neal retires, which he hinted at yesterday. That's why re-singing Kevin Faulk, one of the Final Four who has become the conscience of this team, is paramount.
"A lot of the guys that built those championships in the past here are gone," said Ty Warren. "You can say that there has been some turnover and with that turnover things are going to be different and have been."
Things better be different next season. Because if they aren't, the result will be the same.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.