After watching the Colts advance to their second Super Bowl in four seasons yesterday with an impressive 30-17 victory over Vociferous Rex and the Jets, the question for the Patriots is plain to see: How do they go about catching up with the Colts? The answer is to beat them at their own game -- the draft and player development.
That's a game the Patriots have lost to the Colts the last few years and it is the primary reason they watched yesterday's AFC Championship game from their living rooms while confetti rained down upon the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The most impressive aspect of Indy's win was how it showcased the Colts Way. With the Jets blanketing Peyton Manning's top targets of Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark like a Snuggie, Indianapolis turned to a pair of precocious pass catchers it had developed, Austin Collie, a 2009 fourth-round pick, and Pierre Garcon, a 2008 sixth-round pick, the 27th receiver selected that year.
The performances of Collie (seven catches for 123 yards and a touchdown) and Garcon (11 catches for 151 yards and a brilliant, toe-tapping touchdown catch) highlighted how the Patriots have fallen behind Bill Polian and the Colts because of a dry spell in the draft and player development. All season long the Patriots struggled to develop a third option in the passing game behind Randy Moss and Wes Welker and with Welker rendered hors de combat by a torn ACL the Baltimore Ravens exploited that fatal flaw.
Collie and Garcon are the most obvious examples of Indy's excellence in obtaining undervalued talent, but not the only ones. How about this? The starting offensive line the Colts trotted out to protect Peyton Manning yesterday did not include a player taken in the first three rounds of a draft. The highest pick was right tackle Ryan Diem, a fourth-round selection in 2001.
While the Patriots fared well with their first-round picks from 2006-2008 (Laurence Maroney, Brandon Meriweather, Jerod Mayo) they failed to pick up useful parts in the later rounds. The best player they selected in the third round or later during that time period is placekicker Stephen Gostkowski. You could make an argument for Jonathan Wilhite, a fourth-rounder in '08, but if you did then you weren't watching him play this season.
Meanwhile, Polian and the Colts got better bargains than a Black Monday shopper. With a pair of sixth-round picks in 2006 draft the Colts obtained starting left tackle Charlie Johnson and Pro Bowl safety in Antoine Bethea. In 2007, Indianapolis got weakside linebacker Clint Session in the fourth round.
In 2008, they got Garcon, and in the third round tabbed starting strong-side linebacker Phillip Wheeler, who has filled in for Tyjuan Hagler, lost in November to a torn biceps. This year they had cornerback Jerraud Powers, a third-rounder who started 13 games, and Collie. Powers couldn't go yesterday, so the Colts turned to undrafted rookie free agent Jacob Lacey.
The funny thing is that the interchangeable parts persona used to belong to the Patriots. They made do without Richard Seymour and plugged in a fourth-round pick (Jarvis Green) and won a Super Bowl. They had a seventh-round pick wide receiver who made big catches in postseason games (David Givens). They won a Super Bowl with a rookie free agent (Randall Gay) and a fourth-round pick in his second season (Asante Samuel) starting at cornerback.
They found Pro Bowl players in the later rounds -- Tom Brady, Samuel and Dan Koppen, a fifth-round pick in 2003.
Somewhere along the way the Patriots' lost their way and became too reliant on veteran help. Plugging holes with veterans will work for a while, but it's like putting buckets on the floor for a leaky ceiling -- it's a quick solution for a deeper problem.
The Patriots brought in six veteran free agents last off-season and then brought back Junior Seau during it. The Colts have signed a total of five veteran free agents since 2004.
Spare me the idea that the Patriots were at a drafting disadvantage because they've been picking late in the draft. So have the Colts.
Every team has misses in the draft. For every time the Patriots whiffed on someone like Chad Jackson, the Colts have their own second-round bust, left tackle Tony Ugoh. But when Ugoh flopped they could go to Johnson. The Patriots were forced to go to Sam Aiken, a career special teamer, and Isaiah Stanback, a converted quarterback, to try to fill the void that Jackson should have filled.
Any time there is a discussion of the Patriots' drafting history, fans like to bring up the success they have had with undrafted free agents -- Gay, defensive lineman Mike Wright and linebacker Gary Guyton just to name a few. Well, the Colts have drafted well and found success with undrafted free agents.
Starting middle linebacker Gary Brackett was an undrafted find in 2003. In 2007, the Colts unearthed safety Melvin Bullitt, who started yesterday in place of Bob Sanders and is known around here as the guy who made the tackle on fourth and 2.
No doubt the Patriots stuck player development gold with guard Stephen Neal, a converted wrestler, and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is a master at turning putty into players. But realize that the starting right guard for the Colts yesterday, Kyle DeVan, was a former undrafted free agent who spent last spring playing for the Boise Burn of Arena Football 2.
The Patriots did hit last year in the later rounds with Welker-in-training wideout Julian Edelman and defensive lineman Myron Pryor. Those two supplemented second-rounders Patrick Chung, Darius Butler and Sebastian Vollmer, all of whom look like keepers.
New England doesn't have a third-or a fifth-round pick in this year's draft, but they do have four picks in the top 53, including three second-rounders. That's a good start.
But right now they're chasing Indy.
...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.