Players the Patriots Absolutely Must Re-Sign This Offseason
For Patriots fans, this sort of prediction is familiar. It seems like this team is always primed to seize the crown "next time."
The problem is/ the Patriots constantly undermine their own potential by repeating the same fatal trends, over and over.
Chief among these trends is their tendency to play their best football in the regular season and their worst in the playoffs.
In 2007, when the Patriots went from scoring 36.8 points per game to scoring a measly 14 points in Super Bowl XLII, that was a major red flag. It was evidence of an ugly offensive shortcoming bubbling beneath the surface.
In 2011, when they lost Super Bowl XLVI to an opposing quarterback who only threw one touchdown, familiar red flags emerged in regard to their offensive durability and physical prowess. During the game, reading New England's body language, you could almost hear them say, "There's always next year."
Flash forward to "next year."
Again, the Patriots dominated the regular season. Then, like clockwork, they began the 2012 AFC Championship looking scattered, lethargic, unfocused and weak. They collapsed in such a profound manner and didn't even score in the second half.
These trends must change in 2013.
Accountability must be of the utmost importance.
Tom Brady needs to play better in the playoffs. It hurts to say, but some tough love could be helpful here. The postseason used to be the stage where he shined brightest. He needs to get that fire and brimstone in his belly again.
Bill Belichick needs some tough love, too. He used to be the smartest kid in the class, but now, he's a smart cookie in a sea of smart cookies. He's surrounded by coaches who have learned from him and, in some cases, learned to outsmart him.
Greater competition means Belichick needs to be, well, greater.
And there's more.
The Patriots need a stronger pass rush to shorten the "window of decision" that quarterbacks like Joe Flacco and Eli Manning rely on. They need quicker, meaner defensive backs to prevent dynamic quarterbacks like Russell Wilson from throwing three touchdowns and no interceptions (as he did in Week 6 against New England).
The Patriots need an offense with more durability, one that can carry them through the postseason. They need to play better situational football and acquire healthy prospects in free agency and in the NFL Draft. They need to start playing their best football in the playoffs. They need to get rougher and tougher.
Last but not least, they need to re-sign these four free agents over the offseason.
Everybody wants a superstar receiver on their team. Every free-agency period is a frenzied chase for an elite guy like A.J. Green, and every NFL Draft is a furious hunt for the next Calvin Johnson.
Ironically though, it's the lesser-known receivers like David Tyree and Mario Manningham who wind up making the championship plays.
The Ravens capitalized on this philosophy in a major way. They built their entire receiving unit with lesser-known guys. Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta and Jacoby Jones aren't "marquee players" in the classic sense, but their chemistry was enough to blaze a trail to the Super Bowl and hoist the big prize.
The lesson: Marquee talent wins buzz, but chemistry wins championships.
The Patriots need chemistry, and that chemistry starts with Julian Edelman.
Edelman is arguably the most "coachable" guy in the league, as signified by his willingness to take a backseat to the tight ends in 2011 and play in the secondary. In 2012, he made significant strides as a receiver, while further establishing himself as an elite returner on special teams.
Plus, Edelman's always getting better. How many players are worthy of that statement?
If you're looking for a lesser-known guy who's destined to make the championship catch, look no further than Julian Edelman. He's the real deal.
The Patriots absolutely must re-sign him.
Now that 2012 is in the past, it's easy to look back and acknowledge the incredible season New England's offensive line had.
However, if you eliminate the perfect hindsight and mentally transport yourself back to last August, you're likely to remember how nervous you were about this very subject.
At the time Tom Brady's line of bodyguards was mangled and depleted. The ice was thin and fans were concerned. In a preseason game against the Saints, Brady fumbled the ball after getting sandwiched from both ends. His body crumpled together like an accordion.
Brady stormed off to the sidelines with bits of field turf glued to his mug. At that moment, every Patriots fan on the planet turned to the nearest person and dreadfully murmured, "It's gonna be a long season."
Looking back, the season doesn't seem so long. In fact, it was too short. We were hungry for another game. That's how effective this offensive line was. They kept Brady healthy throughout the entire regular season and postseason and did their jobs.
If anyone on this offensive line deserves the credit, it's Sebastian Vollmer. This guy went toe-to-toe with some of the roughest rushers in the game and beat them, including a pair of standout performances against Mario Williams and the Bills.
Vollmer was the defining member of New England's most overachieving unit of the season. The unit deserves a ton of praise and Vollmer deserves to be re-signed.
Wes Welker has been in New England for six years. He topped 100 catches and 1,000 yards in five of those seasons, while the team averaged over 32 points per game in four of them.
For Patriots fans, these incredible numbers raise contrasting emotions. On one hand, it's nice to see Welker and the Patriots dominantly slicing through the regular season on a near-constant basis. On the other hand, it's disturbing and disappointing to always be "in it" without actually "winning it."
Welker isn't the source of this wicked conundrum, but from a metaphorical standpoint, he certainly represents the dilemma in a very clear way. He has a championship-type season almost every year, but he's never actually won the championship. Similarly, the Patriots look poised to win every season, but they haven't done so in eight years.
The team's plight mirrors Welker's individual plight, and vice versa.
In a perfect world, Welker and the Patriots would just win this thing and call it a day. Such an achievement would satisfy everyone; New England's championship drought would end. Patriots fans would breathe a deep sigh of relief and Welker would march into the Hall of Fame with a Super Bowl ring on his finger.
But it isn't a perfect world. At least, not yet.
Moving forward, with Welker now 31 years old, how vital is his future production? How integral is his role in crafting a championship team in 2013? The Patriots will ask themselves these questions during the offseason when they debate the merits of re-signing him or severing ties.
Here's a better question to ponder: Do you want to see what the Patriots look like without Welker's annual 100 catches and 1,000 yards? An even better question: Do you want to play against another team that has Welker's 100 catches and his 1,000 yards on their side?
Personally, I don't want to see what that experiment looks like.
The Patriots need to re-sign Welker and get the job done—No more excuses.
Last year, the Patriots' organization made its priorities known when they gave rich contract extensions (h/t NFL.com) to Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
On one hand, you can't fault the franchise for cementing their bond with two of the most athletic tight ends in the league who, conceivably, have a decade of dominance ahead of them.
On the other hand, it's extremely unsettling that this duo has been banged up and physically uneven for two straight years. The Lombardi Trophy was within reaching distance in 2011 and 2012, but this tandem was far from peak condition when the team needed it most. That's pretty alarming, considering these tight ends aren't getting any younger.
Gronkowski and Hernandez earned big contracts, but they haven't earned the right to become the centerpiece of this offense. Not yet. They need to prove they can stay healthy for the full 16-game slate, along with three or four playoff games. They need to build a track record of reliability before the keys to the kingdom are placed in their hands.
Until that time comes, the Patriots would be wise to build their 2013 offense on the strength of their toughest trio: Julian Edelman, Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead.
Woodhead, in particular, is worthy of being re-signed. This guy isn't a rock star, but he's a rock. Given the fact that the Ravens just won the Super Bowl with a receiving unit of rocks instead of rock stars, it would be wise for the Patriots to re-sign their own rocks at all costs.
Woodhead, Edelman and Welker are rugged, squirmy and reliable. They have a versatile ability to "cockroach" under defenses or plow straight through the storm.
New England's sweet spot is in their trio of tough guys. This is their path to success.
They must re-sign Woodhead, Edelman and Welker, then use the trio as a blueprint for new prospects. They should explore their options in free agency and in the draft to secure more players who fit this mold, building an army of weapons in this tough, rugged image.
If the Patriots can do that, they'll be the meanest team in the league.