Opinion: Patriots facing a busy off-season

Belichick and company will have to make a number of key personnel decisions

Article by: Christian Petruzzi

Now that the 2009 NFL season is officially in the books, the Patriots and other teams hoping to be contenders next season will look to free agency as a way to solve their personnel problems. However, signing the highest-priced free agent or going on a spending spree doesn’t usually equal wins in January or February. For example, take the Washington Redskins, for years a team that seems to always “win” the off-season bidding war for high-profile free agents, but also a team that hasn’t even won a division title since 1999.

However, sometimes bringing the right player onto the right team can jumpstart a franchise, as shown by the 2003 New England Patriots, who after a horrendous defensive performance the previous season, went into the off-season looking to get physical on defense. They signed former San Diego Charger strong safety Rodney Harrison and big-name linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, formerly of the Chicago Bears.

In reality, though, most of the time free agents are a hit-or-miss game. The Patriots’ off-season that year was a microcosm of what free agency is in the NFL. Rodney Harrison was considered a malcontent, a player said to have been on his last legs and way past his prime. In New England, he ended up leading the number one defense in points allowed all the way to a Super Bowl championship. He followed that up with the game-clinching interception in the following season’s Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles. However, the team didn’t reap the desired dividends with Colvin, who suffered a season-ending injury in only the second game of the season. When he returned the following season, Colvin was a solid contributor, but not the player he had once been.

So what do the Patriots need to do this off-season to shore up an inconsistent offense and sub-par defense? Before Patriots fans start dreaming about big name free agents like Julius Peppers, Karlos Dansby, or Terrell Owens, one must take into account the Patriots’ off-season moves over the course of the past two years. The team brought in the likes of Deltha O’Neal and Shawn Springs, while losing key contributors Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, and Harrison. The team has often looked to sub-par players, hoping to get lucky. Also, keep in mind that the Patriots have quite a few of their own players whose contracts have already expired or soon will.

After slapping the franchise tag on nose tackle Vince Wilfork, the Patriots will owe him $7.3 million for the 2010 season if the team doesn’t come to terms with Wilfork on a long-term deal or decide to trade him. Quarterback Tom Brady’s contract is another one fans may be concerned with. Although all signs seem to point to an extension, how much will Brady end up costing the team? After the Colts’ Peyton Manning was just given a rich contract extension, Brady may finally want to break the bank. Player contracts have become like the new All-Pro list: for many players it’s not about the money, it’s about respect and having the bragging right to say, “I’m the highest paid at my position.” With three Super Bowl championships and just two seasons removed from an NFL record 50 touchdown passes, Brady will not come cheap.

The Patriots also have a lot of overpriced and under-producing players on their roster. Take linebacker Adalius Thomas, for example. No really, someone please take him! He was dubbed the next Lawrence Taylor by some, a player who excelled in pass rushing and had the ability to drop into coverage. The national media claimed that he was a hybrid, the perfect Belichick defensive player. Ever since intercepting the Chargers’ Phillip Rivers and returning it for a touchdown in the 2007 season’s second game, he’s been a non-factor. That was his brief shining moment in a Patriots uniform.

Another player the Patriots could cut ties with this off-season is wide receiver Randy Moss. This isn’t to take anything away from Moss, who is one of the greatest receivers in league history, but he just isn’t physical. He’s the type of receiver who makes acrobatic catches, but who recently can’t seem to beat his defender, even in single coverage.

In a perfect world, the Patriots will re-sign Wilfork, extend Brady’s contract, trade Thomas and sign both Peppers and Dansby on defense and Owens to play opposite Moss. However, in what has become the Patriots’ typical off-season world the past two seasons, the team will trade Wilfork, play cat-and-mouse with Brady and bring in mid to low-level free agents. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it usually ends up being a duck.