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Spare me the change

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  March 12, 2010 01:13 PM

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We're now a week into NFL free agency and the Patriots have been polishing up their return game. Their motto: No change is good.

The status quo has elicited a lot of woe from Patriots fans and pigskin prognosticators who have been disappointed by the team's retention strategy following a 10-6 season and an ignominious first-round playoff defeat. The constant complaint as the Patriots have re-signed their own free agents -- nose tackle Vince Wilfork, cornerback Leigh Bodden, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, right guard Stephen Neal and running back Kevin Faulk -- without making a major addition from outside is that the Patriots haven't gotten any better.

Well, they certainly haven't gotten any worse, so that would mean they're still the best team in the AFC East then, right?

If people are looking for a big splash, wait for this weekend's wet weather.

There is no doubt that last year was disappointing for the Patriots, but that doesn't mean that any player associated with last year's underwhelming product was part of the problem. What the Patriots have done is sign five starters in free agency; Faulk doesn't start, but according to Pro Football Focus he played more snaps at running back than any Patriot last season.

Winning the publicity game in March and April is fun, but it doesn't translate to winning football games in the fall. The undisputed winners in last year's off-season were the Washington Redskins, New York Giants and Chicago Bears. The Redskins got the market's premier free agent in defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. The Giants signed linebacker Michael Boley and defensive linemen Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard for approximately $83 million. The Bears traded for quarterback Jay Cutler.

All three teams also got to watch the playoffs on television because none of them posted a winning record.

There is reason to believe Patriots coach Bill Belichick's brood will put out a better brand of football in 2010 without a major retooling.

The locker room unrest that plagued the Patriots last year was real and a real problem. The feeling was that the team wouldn't pay for its own players. There is no way any player in that locker room can feel that way now, after the Patriots shelled out more than $83 million to bring back their fab five. Wilfork has already vowed to take a more vocal leadership role.

Tom Brady can and will play better. Brady was coming off his torn anterior cruciate ligament injury and battled a bad shoulder and a debilitating rib injury during the season. Despite dealing with a play calling setup that at times appeared dysfunctional, having no third option in the passing game and looking a little out of sync with his injuries, he still managed to throw for 4,398 yards and 28 touchdowns, with 13 interceptions.

Brady will show more improvement from last year to this one than Jets QB and Brady wannabe Mark Sanchez.

Look at former Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan, who was more consistent and NFL-ready as a rookie than Sanchez, but slightly regressed as a sophomore. Ryan's completion percentage, yards per pass and quarterback rating all dipped, while his sacks and interceptions rose. After leading the Falcons to the playoffs in his debut season, Matty Ice was on ice for the postseason last year.

Speaking of sophomore slides, Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo, the 2008 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, took a step back last season after he suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee in the season-opener. Mayo rushed back too soon. He is too good and too dedicated not to make a bigger impact in 2010.

There is no doubt the Patriots still have work to do. The cupboard is barren at tight end, although there are no tears over Benjamin Watson taking the Continental shuttle to Cleveland. Keep an eye on senior football adviser Floyd Reese trying to convince Belichick to pry first-round tendered restricted free agent tight end Bo Scaife, whom Reese drafted in Tennessee, away from the Titans.

The pass rush still needs an upgrade, and wide receiver Wes Welker, arguably the team's most invaluable offensive weapon, is likely to start the season on the physically unable to perform list recovering from a torn knee ligament.

That's why a trade for Anquan Boldin would have been great. However, there was no way the Patriots could have given Boldin the three-year extension he got from the Ravens and told Randy Moss, who is already convinced the team won't pay him, to sit tight in the final year of his deal.

As of yet, there is no earth-shattering AFC East acquisition that has pushed the Patriots to the back of the pack.

Yes, the Jets traded for cornerback Antonio Cromartie, but Cromartie is two years removed from his All-Pro 2007 season, when he led the NFL interceptions with 10. In the two seasons since, he has as many interceptions as states his seven children live in -- five.

The Dolphins, fittingly, made a splash in free agency, signing inside linebacker Karlos Dansby. However, they still have a pedestrian group of pass catchers, despite the way the Patriots portrayed them during their 22-21 loss to the Dolphins in December. Running back Ricky Willams will be 33 this season, an age when running backs traditionally fall off the cliff, no matter how spiritually-inclined they may be, and Miami's pass rush could take a hit if Jason Taylor and his seven sacks don't return to help take the pressure off CFL find Cameron Wake.

The more things don't change for the Patriots the more they remain the same in the AFC East, which isn't as bad as you might think. 
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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...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.

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