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With Belichick, reconstruction is downright puzzling

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  March 5, 2010 09:41 AM

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Now begins the process of rebuilding the Patriots, a team whose needs are apparent. The question is really one of priority.

Linebackers? Receivers? A pass rusher? The Patriots seemingly have needs for all, and coach Bill Belichick's history at this time of year reveals a fascinating unpredictability as much as anything else. They also may need a cornerback, as well as help on the offensive and defensive lines. Currently, the Pats do not have a single tight end on the roster. Belichick is likely to have addressed all of those areas in some capacity by the end of next month’s draft, when we will have a far better understanding of who the Patriots are and where they are going.

Regardless, make no mistake: 2010 is an enormous year for them.

The NFL being the NFL, let us not dismiss the possibility that the Pats could be right back in the thick of Super Bowl contention next January. During the 2008 regular season, the reigning world champion New Orleans Saints went 8-8 and finished last in the NFC South, a game behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now the Saints are the darlings of the pro football world, having dispatched the Indianapolis Colts last month in Super Bowl XLIV.

Like the Saints, the Patriots have a smart, aggressive coach and an elite quarterback, the two biggest building blocks in any successful operation. The question now is not solely whether Belichick can fill all the Patriots' needs so much as which ones are prioritized, something we may not know until the dust settles and the Patriots begin on-field preparations for the 2010 season.

The options, after all, seem endless.

Last night, just before the start of the bidding season, the New York Jets triggered the maneuvering in the AFC East by acquiring cornerback Antonio Cromartie from the San Diego Chargers for a third-round draft choice (potentially a second-rounder) in 2011. With that acquisition, the Jets created arguably the best cornerback tandem in football (Cromartie and the supremely talented Darrelle Revis) to further fortify head coach Rex Ryan’s defense, already ranked first in the NFL.

Like the Pats’ acquisition of Adalius Thomas in early 2007, the Cromartie move looks as if it was aimed exclusively at the Colts, who defeated the Jets in the AFC Championship behind the play of Peyton Manning and young wideouts Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie. In that game, the Colts effectively sacrificed Reggie Wayne for Revis, then asked Manning to complete 18 passes for 274 yards (and two touchdowns) to Garcon and Collie. So Manning did. The Jets even took Dallas Clark out of the game, but still allowed 30 points.

So now the Pats have lots to consider. As always, they need to defend Indy’s passing game. And, without Wes Welker for a good chunk of the season, they must find a way to pass on the Jets’ revamped defense. Belichick is suddenly left with the challenge of competing against arguably the best offense in football as well as the best defense if the Pats have designs of winning another title next year.

Impossible? No, no, no. Not with Belichick. But the Pats of 2009 showed vulnerability on both sides of the ball against elite competition, and watching how Belichick intends to fit it all will be a fascinating exercise.

Will the Pats finally invest in a pass rusher, be it via free agency (Julius Peppers, who is visiting with the Bears?) or through the draft? In the absence of Welker, will they look to make their tight end (Greg Olsen?) a bigger part of the offense? What will become of Kevin Faulk, who is now free to entertain offers from other teams? Will Belichick dare to pursue a big-name receiver via trade (Brandon Marshall?) or again opt for free agency, be it for an accomplished veteran (Derek Mason?) or a relatively unheralded complementary piece (Kevin Walter?). And how much faith do the Pats have in recent draft selections, from linebackers Shawn Crable and Tyrone McKenzie to wide receiver Brandon Tate to defensive backs Darius Butler and Patrick Chung?

For all of those who believe that last season was a "transition year" for the Pats, the potential turnover in this club could be just as great. Though the Jets cut Thomas Jones and Lito Sheppard – the latter is now replaced by Cromartie – New York has relatively few holes and/or questions in its starting units. Save for restricted free agent Leon Washington, the Jets’ key players on offense and defense all will return. Shonn Greene effectively had replaced Jones by season’s end and the Jets placed the highest tender on wide receiver Braylon Edwards earlier this week.

Meanwhile, the Patriots have holes at an array of positions, which is not necessarily worrisome in and of itself. It all depends on how the Patriots fill them – and in what order. For the architect of any team, there are never more options available than on the first day of free agency, when teams can sign and trade for veterans while continuing to prepare for the draft. Answers are scattered about the landscape like puzzle pieces spread across a table. Some people like to start at the corners; others like to start in the middle.

In 2006, during a season that ultimately delivered the Patriots to the AFC title game, Belichick was asked during one of his weekly press conferences about the challenge of game-planning on a week-to-week basis, the process involved in creating a weekly blueprint, about whether he enjoyed, for lack of a better term, puzzles. The coach paused and nodded, offering the most succinct explanation possible.

"That’s what coaching is," he said.

And that challenge now starts in earnest.

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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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