Last offseason, fresh off of the most disappointing loss in franchise history, Patriot Nation sat, waited, hoped, and prayed for help in their defensive backfield and linebacking corps. After the record breaking offense of 2007, it was clear that the only question marks on this team were their age at linebacker and their inexperience in the defensive backfield.
Those concerns came to a head when Asante Samuel, the Patriots' most productive cornerback, was sent to the Eagles. The Patriots’ front office brain trust signed Tank Williams and Deltha O’Neal to ease the transition and bring some veteran experience to the defensive lineup. Williams was hurt in the preseason, however, and O’Neal had a hard time handling other teams’ wideouts (to put it lightly).
The Patriots were hurt by the loss of Adalius Thomas for most of the season, but rookie Jerod Mayo stepped in and made 128 tackles, earning the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award in the process. Here, the Patriots got great value from the 10th overall pick.
This offseason brought more of the same concerns, especially with the departure of defensive leader Mike Vrabel, sent with Matt Cassel to the Kansas City Chiefs.
However, the 2009 Patriots were much more proactive early on in free agency, mostly signing low-risk, high reward players (i.e. Corey Dillon, Randy Moss). Players like Leigh Bodden, Shawn Springs, Tully-Banta Cain, and Joey Galloway are all solid players with skill sets that can benefit the Patriots this season. There has also been talk of possibly trading for Julius Peppers, making the 2009 Patriots an embarrassment of riches.
Headed into the 2009 NFL Draft, the Patriots now have a better idea of what they really need, and can now select players who do not necessarily have to produce this year. While other teams pick players (and pay big bucks) to high draft picks who they hope can be “franchise players,” the Patriots can select players who they can develop.
Waiting for their shot at a starting spot are defensive backs Jonathan Wilhite, Terrence Wheatley, and Antwain Spann. Any additional draft picks in the defensive backfield will supplement what they already have, giving everyone a chance to compete in the preseason for those four starting spots.
Surely having a series of successful draft years is the key to building a championship franchise. In recent history, the Patriots have drafted cerebral players, those who can match their brawn with brain, and for the most part it has worked out well.
But by being so active in free agency this offseason, the Patriots have put less pressure on themselves to select that franchise saving star. Instead, their draft day selections will have to earn a spot on the team, possibly booting some of the newly signed free agents. This is the beauty of low-risk, high-reward.
The competition is not limited to defensive backs and linebackers either, as evidenced by Coach Belichick personally visiting UConn’s Pro Day to visit running back Donald Brown, as well as possibly taking a look at Tyler Lorenzen to play, what else, safety.
Why would the Patriots be looking at a running back?
The Patriots are stacked in this department, with Kevin Faulk, Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, and the undrafted BenJarvus-Green-Ellis. Selecting Brown would certainly send one of the five current halfbacks home, which is the beauty of preseason competition. The entire Patriots staff values players who can both fit in their system and be molded into contributing players.
Surely there will be players who contribute immediately, and it will probably be an inside linebacker. Like Jerod Mayo last year, a player taken in the late stages of the first round will not only give the Patriots added depth, but they won't financially handcuff the organization like top five picks normally do.
So while the Lions are hoping and praying for a successful first pick, as well as teams like Denver who have worked out Mark Sanchez, the Patriots do not have to roll the dice this year, thanks to free agency. With 11 total picks and three in the second round alone, look for the Patriots to make some deals, maybe bring in Peppers, and draft guys that they know will have an impact on this squad.
The Patriots are highly regarded as one of the smartest teams from top to bottom in the NFL. They are unmatched when it comes to preparation and execution, two qualities that any championship team must possess. This all starts with the draft, but because of their action in free agency, the team is under less pressure than ever entering the 2009 NFL Draft.