And this year, more than ever, we may get a true glimpse into the New England philosophy of team building.
Now five weeks removed from their Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants, the Patriots will join the remaining 31 teams in the NFL this week as free agency begins. Estimates place New England's cap flexibility in the neighborhood of $16 million, a number that puts them in the middle of the pack in terms of cap flexibility and a figure that could grow in the coming days or weeks.
And this year, for the first time, the NFL will conduct its draft next month with the benefit of cost control.
So now, the question is obvious:
Will the Patriots act more aggressively than they generally have in years past? Or will they continue with the measured approach that has helped them build the most consistent franchise in the NFL over the last 11 years?
After all, each clearly has its merits.
As is the case with any Patriots team at this time of year, the starting point is obvious: How good are they, really? And how much time does Tom Brady have left? Skeptics (ahem) will note that until defeating Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots did not defeat a single team that finished the 2011 regular season with a winning record. And yet, the Patriots came within a whisker of winning the Super Bowl, an accomplishment that should not be diminished and for which there is no shame.
Nonetheless, the Patriots have needs, most obviously on a defense that looked decent at times, downright wretched at others. Defensive ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson played well for head coach Bill Belichick in 2011, but both are free agents. Beyond Jerod Mayo, the linebacker corps is inconsistent. Belichick was forced to play musical chairs with a secondary that improved at least some by year's end, but the Patriots still couldn't get off the field against the Giants in the Super Bowl.
Offensively, in addition to the franchised Wes Welker, the Patriots need another receiver. They are currently without a center. And there is still question as to whether they have the necessary elements for a reliable running game -- or whether they are even committed to one.
To this point in Belichick's tenure, we all know how the Patriots have operated. Generally speaking, New England has refrained from big financial commitments in the draft or on the free agent market, compiling draft picks as if they were all raffle tickets of equal value. From team president Jonathan Kraft to Belichick, the Pats have placed particular emphasis on the dreaded V-word -- value -- often forgoing picks in the earliest part of the draft for more cost-effective picks in the late-first round or beyond.
But with the new salary slotting now in place for the draft, will that be true anymore? Is Belichick intent on using the team's two first-round picks (Nos. 27 and 31) or will he trade one out, as he did last year? Will he combine them and actually try to trade up? How much does the presence of the two first-rounders impact the New England approach on the open market?
Or will the Patriots merely conduct business as usual, trading down or out of the higher draft slots while pursuing second-tier (or lower) free agents, all in the name of the salary cap?
And if that happens, won't that be an indication that New England's strategy has more to do with the quantity of players they add each offseason than the quality of players? With regard to the draft, at least, the cost of picks is going down, making the first-rounders more valuable. If the Patriots trade out again, independent of money, can't we say with absolute certainty that they would rather have two picks in the second round than one in the first?
With regard to the free agent market, the biggest fish on this year's market is obvious: defensive lineman Mario Williams. Williams would be a perfect fit in New England. He is a three-down player who can stop the run and pressure the quarterback. He is young. Williams would change everything about the way the Patriots play defense, giving Belichick the kind of dominating defensive end the Patriots have lacked since the departure of Richard Seymour.
The problem? Williams will likely command a contract equal to or greater than the one bestowed on Julius Peppers, who nailed down a six-year deal worth in excess of $90 million from the Chicago Bears two offseasons ago.
And while Patriots supporters will be quick to point out that Belichick dropped a pile of money in front of Adalius Thomas during the spring of 2007, the Patriots have never, ever, made that kind of financial commitment to anyone other than a quarterback.
In the last year, a great deal has changed in the NFL. The Indianapolis Colts disintegrated. The bargaining agreement was renegotiated. The entire landscape of the NFL has changed, the AFC, in particular, pending Manning's decision, and Tom Brady is approaching his 35th birthday.
If the Patriots ever change their way of doing business, now would seemingly be the time.
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