New England Patriots: Adjustments Bill Belichick Must Make to Succeed in 2012
It's been seven years since Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots brought a trophy and banner back to Foxboro. If New England is to snap its championship drought in 2012, Belichick will need to implement a few changes and adjustments.
Following February's Super Bowl loss, wholesale changes weren't needed, but the Patriots did make many alterations with regard to personnel on the roster and coaching staff.
With those additions in mind, here's a list of priorities that Belichick will need to focus on moving forward.
Reducing Reliance on Previous Key Contributors
The Patriots' 2012 roster will feature many new faces in new roles.
Previous key contributors like Deion Branch will see their responsibilities lessened. Additions at receiver, including Jabar Gaffney and Brandon Lloyd, should severely curb Branch's workload moving forward.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, New England's leading rusher in 2011, will don a new jersey next season. As will co-sack leader Mark Anderson.
Shaun Ellis, a 10-game starter for the Patriots last year, may join longtime starter Matt Light in retirement. Kevin Faulk may soon join that list as well.
Belichick and his staff have a lot of work ahead in grading out possible replacements in these roles and many others.
Increasing Reliance on Youth
While it's true that veterans like Lloyd and Gaffney will be counted on to pick up some of the slack in 2012, a lot more help is on the way by way of the youth movement.
Danny Tuccitto and Rivers McCown of Football Outsiders recently ranked the Patriots as the top organization in the league with talent under the age of 25. New England's proverbial cupboards are quite full, especially considering the incoming 2012 draft class.
The Patriots will welcome NFL-ready talent in Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower and Jake Bequette. They join a young core already featuring the likes of Kyle Love, Kyle Arrington, Devin McCourty, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Steven Ridley, among many more.
Taking Advantage of Full Offseason Schedule and 90-Man Roster
The 2011 offseason was a chore to digest and very likely contributed to the slow start experienced by New England's defensive unit.
Negotiations regarding the collective bargaining agreement limited the amount of time Belichick had to work with his roster, thus limiting the amount of his game plan that he could install.
Those problems are long gone, but they've been replaced by the complexity of a 90-man roster extension. The Patriots must evaluate that extended roster in a shortened amount of time as well, as the team will be playing three of their four preseason games in the span of just 10 days.
Monitoring the 30-and-over Crowd
New England brought in six players over the age of 30 this offseason with the additions of Lloyd, Gaffney, Donte Stallworth, Jonathan Fanene, Will Allen and Robert Gallery.
The 32-year-old Dan Koppen will be making his return to the Patriots this year after nearly missing the entire year in 2011.
There's nothing magic about the number, which should be made clear by the Pro Bowl level of play from Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins and Brian Waters. Still, when you have so many important pieces nearing this stage of their career, it becomes important to be cognizant of it.
Brady, Welker and Mankins have dealt with significant injuries, and it may be time to adjust accordingly. This isn't earth-shattering stuff here, but maybe Belichick considers resting key features of his squad, especially in junk time when youngsters could be used to kill the clock.
Making Backup Plans
As the roster ages and contracts runs their course, Belichick and the Patriots will have to have their backup plans in place.
Wes Welker's status moving forward is as hazy as it's ever been and the "Patriot Way" dictates that the next man in line is always ready to step up.
Julian Edelman has filled in at slot receiver for New England in the past, and the Patriots invested in the position twice this offseason. Anthony Gonzalez, since released, was given a look, and the team also selected wideout Jeremy Ebert in the seventh round of the draft.
Brian Hoyer, Pat Chung and Sebastian Vollmer all have expiring contracts coming up as well, so the team will have quite a few decisions to make and plans to create.