This is an exciting time for the Patriots. Their achievements over the last two seasons have demonstrated the basic framework to make them a championship contender in 2013. With a few important upgrades in free agency, this team should be ready to take care of unfinished business.
According to ESPN Boston, the Patriots are estimated to be among the top 10 teams in cap space. Keeping in mind that it's only an estimation, based on fluid information, it's still welcome news. It means the Patriots are in an excellent position to pursue their deepest desires during free agency.
But, before the Patriots can pursue the right players, they need to identify their most critical needs. It's also vitally important that they identify fatal pitfalls to avoid. These are the first steps to building an unbreakable team.
Here are six pitfalls the Patriots must avoid in free agency.
Andre Carter, with the 2011 Patriots
Defensive end Andre Carter played for the Patriots during the 2011 season. In that brief period of time, he proved himself to be a gentleman with a very deep soul.
There was a special light inside of him. You saw it in his eyes. You saw it in his game. You heard the wisdom in his voice. He made his teammates stronger. He taught them about patience and poise. He was a leader of men.
When he went down with a major injury, it sent shockwaves through the team. It carved an empty hole in the middle of their soul. That problem spilled into 2012, when Carter moved to another team.
In the lingering absence of leadership, more responsibility was shoveled on Tom Brady's shoulders. In addition to maintaining the entire offense, Brady was suddenly responsible for keeping all of his teammates on the same emotional wavelength and building up everybody's confidence.
To this day, Brady's everything to everyone, all the time. It's too much.
The Broncos wandered down this thorny road last season. Everything came down to Peyton Manning's arm and Peyton Manning's leadership and Peyton Manning's everything. Is it any wonder why they crashed and burned? It's just too much responsibility for one guy to handle.
The Patriots do have some key leaders (Brady, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, among others), but it's not enough. You can see the team's lack of leadership when they get to the playoffs; their psychology melts down, their unity fractures and nobody's there to hold the pieces together.
One of New England's top priorities during free agency should be to fill the lack of leadership. They need a wise, soulful warrior like Carter. More importantly, they need a healthier version of Carter, someone who will be there until the confetti falls.
Anything less would qualify as a major pitfall.
Wes Welker is New England's most important free agent. This is a delicate situation. The outcome will likely influence the shape and tone of the team's entire season.
Here are four ways this situation can go wrong.
One: The Patriots re-sign Welker, but he suffers a dramatic dip in his production. After all, he's about to turn 32, which means he's hitting the end of his prime. His body is a factor here.
Two: The Patriots re-sign him and he tallies over 100 catches and over 1,000 yards in 2013, but the team still doesn't win the Super Bowl. In that situation, the Patriots would have essentially tried the same experiment and gotten the same result. There might be a tidal wave of regret, with fantasies of all the free agents that could've been purchased by letting Welker walk.
Three: The Patriots let him walk and he contributes over 100 catches and over 1,000 yards to a rival team. That would induce a queasy feeling in Patriots fans everywhere.
Four: The Patriots let Welker walk and he succeeds with a rival team, then Welker's new team beats the Patriots in the playoffs. That would feel almost as crummy as losing the Super Bowl. If Welker makes the game-winning catch to beat the Patriots, it would feel worse than losing the Super Bowl.
Now, here are four ways the situation can end well.
One: The Patriots re-sign Welker, he tallies over 100 catches and over 1,000 yards in 2013 and they win the Super Bowl. That's the best possible scenario.
Two: The Patriots re-sign him, he has another great season, but they don't win the Super Bowl. However, instead of feeling sour about the outcome, everyone feels good about keeping the team together and enjoying the Brady-Welker era until the last drop.
Three: The Patriots let him walk and he joins any team except the Jets, Texans, Ravens, Giants, Seahawks, Broncos, 49ers, Dolphins or Bills. It would still hurt to see him go, but at least we could still be friends.
Four: The Patriots let him walk and they use the money to acquire some incredible receivers from the free-agency market. Then, armed with those new players, the Patriots win the Super Bowl.
Those are radically different paths with radically different outcomes. The Patriots must choose wisely.
Making the wrong decision could prove to be their most disastrous pitfall of the year.
Back in 2011, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez dominated in dazzling fashion. They reshaped their team's entire offense and launched a brand new era of Patriots football.
But that era fell short twice. On both occasions, the injuries to these tight ends played a key role. Gronkowski's injuries were especially significant; one could argue that his injuries influenced the outcomes of the 2011 season and the 2012 season on a league-wide basis.
However, it isn't all doom and gloom. This new era of Patriots football is only two years old, so there's time to grow. Plus, the Patriots were one of the final four teams standing in the last two years, which bodes well for the coming season.
Still though, whether you see the glass as half-full or half-empty, this much should be noted: The Patriots live and die by their fragile tight ends, which makes the team fragile, as well.
These tight ends have a track record of injury. The more the Patriots rely on them, the more dangerous their outlook becomes. They're basically playing a game of chicken with themselves. It's dangerous and potentially reckless.
During this free-agency period, the Patriots really need to scrutinize their depth at tight end. There's no room for romanticism here. Honesty is important.
With Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells on the roster, do they have a reliable group? Can these backups step in for Gronkowski and Hernandez if the injury bug continues?
The Patriots need to answer these questions honestly. If their answers are skeptical, then they need to purchase another tight end from the free-agency market.
In doing so, it might give the impression that the Patriots are stockpiling too many tight ends, but the uniqueness of the situation may require some added safety nets. Can't be too careful here.
Failure to cover their own bases could prove to be a huge pitfall.
The Patriots don't have a single receiver who qualifies as a "slam dunk."
Take Brandon Lloyd, for example. His inconsistency never went away. His relationship with Tom Brady was wishy-washy when the season began and it was wishy-washy when the season ended. There's little evidence to inspire hope moving forward.
Look at Wes Welker. Welker can easily get the Patriots to the postseason, but after that, his contribution begins to dip. He doesn't dictate the flow or affect the outcomes of major playoff games. He doesn't take matters into his own hands. He's extremely valuable, but only to a certain point.
Look at Kamar Aiken, Andre Holmes and Jeremy Ebert. None of these receivers have registered a single reception for the Patriots. They're all question marks.
Look at Deion Branch. He's a legend, but he's 33 now. His dominant period is gone. Moving forward, it's tough to see him fitting into the offense on a regular basis.
Look at Matthew Slater. Technically, he's a receiver, but his true value is on special teams. His receiving abilities are an afterthought.
Look at Julian Edelman. I love this kid. He's going to be great. But still, even if he fully blossoms (the way I think he will), he still won't be the guy who turns this receiving unit around. He's an essential piece of a larger tapestry, which hasn't been woven yet. Even at his best, the team will need more.
All of this information reflects poorly on the receiving unit. Every receiver is flawed, or at the very least, comes with some sort of explanation or special circumstance. There isn't a single guy you can point to and say, "Perfect, no complaints."
Where's the reliability there? Where's the depth?
The Patriots need to be aggressive with bringing in new receivers from free agency.
Failure to do so will doom the team.
There's a wonderful documentary series on NFL Network called A Football Life. It's a unique series which provides intimate glimpses into the minds and methods of important football icons.
One particularly amazing episode follows Bill Belichick during New England's 2009 season. The episode perfectly captures Belichick's highs and lows in vivid detail, placing the viewer in a very intimate space with a fiercely private genius. It's pure greatness, scene after scene.
One scene, in particular, stood out.
The scene took place during a Monday coach's meeting, following the team's overtime loss to the Broncos. It was a drab and dreary meeting, laced with frustration and quiet aggression. Belichick was irate over faulty execution, across the board. Specifically, he was angry that the offense only manufactured 17 points. He unleashed some scathing sarcasm on the room:
[When] that Wednesday practice was over, where did the receivers go? Straight in, right? Right? Did we stay after practice with the receivers and [Tom] Brady? No, no, because we've got it down. We're all set, we don't need any extra work. That sums it up right there for me, it really does. Sky's the limit. There's no telling how good we can be.
After his caustic scorn subsided, Belichick unloaded everything in a very blunt and crystallized way:
Offensively, really, we've seen this now twice, if you just take [Randy] Moss away in the deep part of the field and get down on [Wes] Welker, we're done. We're done. We can't run the ball. We can't throw to anybody else. We're done.
Belichick said this back in 2009. Now, we're preparing for the 2013 season. Randy Moss is long gone. We've moved on to two tight ends. It's a whole new offense. And yet, somehow, Belichick's words are still just as relevant. That's startling, isn't it?
The Patriots still have the same problems. They're known as a great offensive juggernaut, but they only scored 13 points in the 2012 AFC Championship and 17 points in Super Bowl XLVI. That's the kind of pitfall that Belichick was referring to with his sarcasm. This juggernaut offense is beatable.
When Belichick talked about smothering Moss and Welker, he was talking about the blueprint to beating the Patriots. That blueprint really hasn't changed much over the years, even without Moss.
Here's the blueprint for beating this new Patriots team: Put consistent pressure on Tom Brady. Give him all the yards he wants, but limit his touchdowns to about two. Get down on Welker, give him his yards (he doesn't score much anyway), keep him honest on key plays and force him to drop the ball in crucial situations. Smother Gronkowski and Hernandez, contain their overall production.
That's it. That's all it takes to beat the machine right now.
This is what Belichick was talking about back in 2009: Weak point totals in big games and crystallized blueprints for the world to see. His words are still relevant.
Free agency is a perfect opportunity for the Patriots to turn that blueprint into an antiquated document. They can get it all: A dynamite receiver, a dynamite pass rusher, a dynamite defensive back, a dynamite leader. It's all there for the taking.
Failure to acquire the right pieces will ensure that the same old ghosts continue to haunt them.
Willie McGinest, Patriots legend
Between 2001 and 2004, the Patriots won three world titles and established a dynasty. Ever since then, they've dominated the regular season like nobody's business. Year after year, they emerge as a title contender. Problem is, they keep collapsing in the playoffs.
There's a similar team in a different league: The San Antonio Spurs. Between 1999 and 2007, they won four NBA titles and established a dynasty. To this day, they still have their Brady-Belichick combination intact with Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich.
The Spurs are still a strong title contender nearly every year. But, like clockwork, they keep falling apart in the playoffs. Like the Patriots, they keep losing to teams that are stronger and faster.
Similar things happened to the Patriots and Spurs. Over the years, key players left or retired, which weakened their respective cores and forced them to shift their focus to different areas. This made them very vulnerable, especially when playing against more complete teams in the playoffs.
This is especially true of the Patriots. Tom Brady was always terrific, but the original dynasty team was primarily about defense, toughness and intimidation. When key defensive players left, the focus shifted to Brady's arm. All of a sudden, the Patriots started living and dying by their offense alone.
New England's tough, gritty defense is gone. The intimidation factor is gone. They lost the original recipe. They need to get that recipe back before they can start cooking again.
They can start this process now, during free agency.
They need to build a tough, physical defense that stops teams on critical downs in major games. They need pass rushers who intimidate opponents, mentally and physically. They need brutal, hard-hitting, unrelenting defensive backs who refuse to give up the big play.
The Patriots can't keep falling into the same old pitfall. Enough is enough. The message is clear: Defense, defense, defense. Don't overlook this problem. Attack it. Solve it.
There's plenty of tough defenders available in the free-agency market. The Patriots have the money to get them.
Now's the time to make their move.