From the 2001 season all the way through 2007 the New England Patriots were a true dynasty in every sense of the word. In that span, they won the AFC East Division six times, went to five AFC Championships, four Super Bowls, and won three Lombardi trophies.
They've had a winning record every year since 2001, just ahead of the Colts' streak that began in 2002.
A great deal of the credit for this string of success has to go to their ability to manage players' salaries and keep their pieces in place. However, that is also the same reason 2009 and 2010 look to be troubling for Patriots fans.
This year, the Patriots are currently right up to the edge with their salary cap, but that's only the start of the story. Free agents are the biggest part of it, so here's a list of the Patriots' free agents.
Matt Cassel (Franchise Tag)
2010 (A Much Bigger Issue)
There are always a number of those players who will be re-signed for relatively cheap amounts, while others will simply be allowed to leave. Additionally, there are always players out there who can be signed as free agents. However, a number of the players on that list aren't so easy to replace.
Right now, I think the top priority for the Patriots is to keep the key players in their defense, and at the very least, that means signing Vince Wilfork to a long-term deal during this offseason. Waiting until next year to extend his contract would be fool-hardy.
But where do you focus after that?
The 2009 free agents that I think will stay for a relatively inexpensive cost are Heath Evans, Jabar Gaffney, and LaMont Jordan. Evans is solid but unspectacular, and he is an excellent presence in the locker room and will do anything asked of him.
There are those who dismiss the importance of Jabar Gaffney, but this year he isn't what he was the previous one-and-a-half seasons with the Patriots. If given a chance, I think he'll bounce back.
Speaking of bouncing back, look for Jordan to sign a one- or two-year deal somewhere, and I hope here. He needs to prove durability, and why not stay where he might have a shot at a Lombardi trophy?
Logan Mankins needs to stick around, as he's a road-grater out there, with a mean streak that's necessary. He's durable as well, not missing a game in four years. Forget Pro-Bowl nominations for a moment and just focus on what he brings to the field.
He's a keeper, and should be a lifer.
The 2010 free agent group has some that should come back into the fold as well in players such as Kevin Faulk, Stephen Gostkowski, and Stephen Neal. There are a couple who'll probably not be back like Richard Seymour (too expensive), Nick Kaczur (who might not make it through training camp), and Benjamin Watson.
Mike Vrabel, now a long-time Patriot standard, could be gone. The same might be said for Ellis Hobbs, who has played better than his stats and reputation have shown. One thing about Hobbs that can't be questioned is his desire, as he's out there nearly every game regardless of injury.
In the next two years, the Patriots offense could potentially lose both of their tight ends, their third-down back, their fullback, three offensive linemen, and their place kicker.
The Patriots defense could lose four of their front seven, their top backup defensive lineman, two of their top backup linebackers, and half of the 2008 starting secondary. That's a lot of loss to recover from for the Pats.
Much of what happens will depend on who is already in the fold. Players such as Jonathan Wilhite, Terrance Wheatley, Gary Guyton, Vince Redd, and Shawn Crable will be entering their second year in 2009, and they'll be examined as potential replacements for the players in front of them.
That's a lot of youth back there, which is both good and questionable.
Another major factor in the upcoming free agent market is dependent on the Matt Cassel situation, which is a situation dependent on Tom Brady's health. If Brady is healthy, the Patriots can deal Cassel and receive draft picks and/or players in return, helping to prepare for the future.
However, if the Patriots choose instead to retain him, it won't be inexpensive. Even if they sign him to a long-term deal, it will still put a high salary cap figure on him, somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 to 10 million. That's a lot of money to put into a backup. Unless, that is, Tom Brady isn't ready to go, in which case it's an insurance policy that's priced right.
That's the problem facing Bob Kraft, Bill Belichick, Floyd Reese, and the rest of the Patriots brain trust. Do you keep Cassel, or trade him? Do you re-sign older players such as Vrabel, Faulk, and Seymour, or head in a youthful direction? Whose contracts are necessary to extend, and who is expendable?
Many of us love to be the armchair quarterback on Sundays. We love to criticize the offensive and defensive coordinators and their play-calling. We judge the draft picks moments after they're selected, without any time for them to prove anything.
However, right now, I would both love and hate the challenge facing the Patriots. To be the Patriots GM would be an all-in-one dream come true and nightmare waiting to explode.
Considering all sides, I'm not sure it's a job I'd want. Then again, the food is great, the pay is awesome, you get seats to every home game, and you get to advise Bill Belichick.
Sign me up!