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Peppers? Sounds sweet

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  March 17, 2009 10:34 AM

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What this all goes back to, really, is that devastating night in the desert, Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots’ equivalent of the day the music died.

Thirteen months after the dream of an unbeaten season ended with a nightmare, the franchise appears to be rearming again. And it is operating as if it has unfinished business.

So here we are, still more than one month before the annual NFL Draft, and the pieces seem to be coming together like another one of Bill Belichick’s impeccable game plans. Tom Brady’s knee begot Matt Cassel, who begot the No. 34 pick, which very well might beget Julius Peppers. Isn’t that how it is all supposed to work out now? According to a report yesterday on NFL.com, Belichick may be nearing a deal with the Carolina Panthers that would bring Peppers, a freakishly athletic pass rusher, to New England for the No. 34 overall pick -- the same selection acquired last month in the deal that sent Cassel and Mike Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs.

So there you have it. To fill the one glaring hole remaining on the roster, Belichick seems positioned to deal the 230th overall pick in 2005 (Cassel) for the second overall pick in 2002 (Peppers).

At the moment, we should all note that Peppers is still unclaimed property at this point and has yet to sign the franchise tender placed on him by the Panthers earlier this offseason. There is still a lot that must happen, and there is still the chance Peppers ends up somewhere other than New England. And yet, the mind cannot help but race to examine the possibilities:

  • If these dominoes fall the way we all now hope them to -- expect them to? -- there is no doubt about what this means for the Patriots: They will be loaded again. Brady will have a cast of wide receivers that will include Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Joey Galloway, and Greg Lewis. The backfield will feature Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney, and Kevin Faulk. Belichick will have prime-of-career former Pro Bowlers on both sides of the line and a revamped secondary, and now he could have a delicious linebacking corps of Adalius Thomas dressed with Peppers and (Jerod) Mayo.

    Bartender, we’ll have Bruschis all around.

  • Now comes the silly part. Should they complete the Peppers deal, the Pats still would have three of the first 58 picks in the draft at Nos. 23, 47 and 58, choices Belichick might use, presumably, on a linebacker and two linemen (one offense, one defense), though not necessarily in that order. By then, the Patriots might have orchestrated one of the great offseasons in sports history, their personal best since, say, the surgical 2007 enhancement that produced Thomas, Moss, Welker and Brandon Meriweather.
  • In the long term, don’t underestimate the Patriots' need on the lines. Richard Seymour could be elsewhere after the season and the Pats still have the task of signing nose tackle Vince Wilfork, which might be further complicated by a Peppers acquisition. Re-signing versatile Russ Hochstein gives the Pats some depth, but right tackle has been an unstable position and right guard Stephen Neal has been hurt a lot. Also, we don’t need to be reminded of what happened to the Pats’ vaunted left side against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
  • If the Pats can pull off the Peppers deal, Belichick will be vindicated for his decision to sacrifice Vrabel in the Cassel deal and should be lauded for taking a heretofore shrewd approach to the offseason. Taylor, Galloway, Lewis, tight end Chris Baker, and defensive backs Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs were relatively inexpensive pickups that addressed specific needs and gave the Pats tremendous depth, something Belichick considers imperative given the typical attrition over the course of 16 games.
  • If the Pats don’t get Peppers -- and Adam Schefter of the NFL Network said this morning he thinks they will not, contradicting yesterday's report by colleague Vic Carucci -- they can still go out and make a run at someone like, say, free agent Jason Taylor, recently released by the Washington Redskins. They also could keep the 34th pick and draft another linebacker.
  • For all of the heat the Pats have been getting in the wake of the decision to include Vrabel in the Cassel trade, they’re still faring better than new Denver Broncos coach and former Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who finds himself in a firestorm he may not be able to put out. Angered by McDaniels’s interest in Cassel, petulant quarterback Jay Cutler now is undermining the new coach's authority by failing to report to offseason workouts. If McDaniels learned anything from his mentor, he’ll chop the legs off his quarterback and send him off in parts, thereby grabbing his team by the collar and letting the Broncos know who’s boss.
  • Carucci’s original report of the Peppers deal on NFL.com indicated that the Panthers preferred a second-round pick over a first-round selection because of the need for cost efficiency. (A first-round pick would require a greater financial commitment and, thus, greater risk.) Of course, this has been a longtime belief of the Patriots, who seem to have revolutionized the art of drafting and corresponding salary cap management in the NFL the way that Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane did -- at least for a time -- in baseball.

    But remember: The last three times the Patriots picked in the top half of the first round, they got Jerod Mayo (No. 10 last year), Ty Warren (No. 13 in 2003), and Richard Seymour (No. 6 in 2001).

  • Like the Red Sox’ offseason acquisitions, many Patriots pickups seem to come with a considerable injury history. Fred Taylor, Springs, and Galloway all have had problems recently, and the Pats already have some durability/health concerns with Thomas, Maroney, Neal, Ben Watson and, of course, Brady. Injuries are a part of life in the NFL, as we all know, but one of the underrated aspects of a player like Vrabel is that he was almost always on the field.
  • Amazing what the addition of someone like Peppers could do to help quell concerns about the secondary, eh? The Bodden and Springs signings aside, we all know how much Belichick believes in building the front seven of his defense, a strategy further supported by other examples. Again, we look no further than Super Bowl XLII, where a seemingly suspect Giants secondary became infinitely better thanks to the sterling play of the team’s front seven, particularly on the defensive line.
  • By the way, Peppers just turned 29, making him four-and-a-half years younger than Vrabel, who actually will turn 34 in August. Peppers will not turn 30 until Jan. 18, the day after the NFL divisional playoffs and at the start of the week leading up to the conference championship games.

    Any bets on which of the two will still be playing?

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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