Age can define a football team. It’s what separates a 4-12 organization from a 12-4 one.
NFL coaches and general managers on the shorter end of the stick may ask themselves, “How can we win now, while also building for the future?”
They should just ask the New England Patriots.
Head coach Bill Belichick, director of player personnel Nick Caserio and football research director Ernie Adams know that it's about finding a balance between young and old.
Age is a double-edged sword. An abundance of over-the-hill players results in lethargy. An abundance of rookies results in miscues. Although when the two sides of the spectrum are blended just right, experience and energy are the most visible byproducts.
This is a juggling act that all 32 NFL squads go through, trying to find a common ground between “wet behind the ears” and “long in the tooth.”
New England has found a way to keep the Patriots roster competitive yet young enough to avoid attrition. Only missing the playoffs twice since 2001 is a strong indicator of that.
The Patriots have done well in retaining a group of seasoned veterans to aid the greenhorns through the inevitable growing pains. Because, after all, those greenhorns could one day be the seasoned veterans.
There's something to be said for learning under well-read football minds. Tutelage goes a long way. That said, the Patriots will need it to go even further this year.
A rampant youth movement is underway in Foxboro.
Strength in Numbers
According to Kevin Fishbain of Pro Football Weekly, the Patriots were ranked as the fifth youngest team in the league through late October of 2012. That clock has been set back even more through free agency and the draft.
While the figures are currently a little skewed due to the 90-man roster, the team’s average age is 25 years old. So, in essence, 2010 first-round pick Devin McCourty is the median.
Presently, New England’s roster consists of 11 players who are 22 or younger, with rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson leading the way as the lone 21-year-old.
In total, there are 27 rookies vying for jobs. Seven of whom were selected via this year’s draft; the other 20 were undrafted free agents and are far from roster locks.
Regardless, one should expect to see eight to 10 of these college prospects on the final 53-man roster. Teams often retain a high-potential, low-cost youngster who can play special teams over an established vet who will serve primarily as a backup.
It will be tough to make the final cut, however, as there are also 16 one-year pros and first-year players in camp.
Don’t rule out candidates like Canadian Football League defensive tackle Armond Armstead or unsettled members from last year’s draft class, though. Everyone is looking to get on the field one way or another.
Anticipate the unproven talent to be motivated. This, in turn, should create strength in numbers for Belichick and Co. to work with.
Just 11 Patriots are over age 30, which means that at 35 years old, quarterback Tom Brady is the oldest of them all.
Hard to believe, isn’t it?
How did New England get to this point? Well, to wax poetically, the team’s brass pruned away the weathered branches of experience to let unsprouted ones bloom.
Although not always in popular fashion, we have seen Belichick bid farewell to some quintessential Patriots before. He’ll do so again before long.
Belichick—who majored in economics at Wesleyan University—sees two factors at the forefront of personnel decisions: value and need. The Patriots don’t pay players for what they used to be; the Patriots pay players for what they are now and what they will be.
If there’s enough assortment to choose from at one position and a player’s salary is not indicative of their production, then the supply does not equal the demand.
This wagering assessment is how sentimental favorites like safety Lawyer Milloy, cornerback Ty Law, outside linebacker Willie McGinest, linebacker Mike Vrabel, defensive end Richard Seymour and center Dan Koppen all departed from the confines of Gillette Stadium. Some were via release, others were via trade. Nonetheless, they all left under same billing.
The Patriots continued to carve away at the over-30 corps this offseason, seeing how receivers Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch and Donte’ Stallworth, as well as linebacker Tracy White, are no longer on the books.
As we all know by now, tenure only goes so far. A new leaf has been turned over, and the oldest men in New England's locker room are guards Dan Connolly and Logan Mankins, safeties Steve Gregory and Adrian Wilson, wide receiver Michael Jenkins, running back Leon Washington, offensive tackle Will Svitek, defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, as well as linebacker Niko Koutouvides.
From that group, only Brady, Wilson, Wilfork, Kelly, Jenkins and Koutouvides have logged over a decade in the NFL.
A very exclusive club; don’t be surprised if that group gets even thinner as the cut-down days pass.
As cliché as it sounds, it’s a business. There’s little room for sentimentality. Belichick is well aware of that.
Maintaining the Nucleus
Despite the renovations, New England’s core has remained intact. In all, 21 of the team’s 24 starters from 2012 are set to return in 2013. Because of the minimal turnover, a drop-off in performance appears unlikely.
The Patriots are a very young team, consisting of 33 former draft selections. That does not, however, mean that all of their youth lacks the game experience needed to contribute.
On the offensive side of the ball, make note of left tackle Nate Solder, tight end Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, as well as running back Stevan Ridley—none of whom are over 25 years old.
On the defensive side of the ball, make note of defensive end Chandler Jones, linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes, defensive backs Alfonzo Dennard, Tavon Wilson and McCourty—none of whom are over 25 years old, either.
Those 10 former draft picks may all have their best days of football in front of them.
Tandem all of that upside with the old standbys like Brady, Mankins, Wilfork and Mayo, and New England may have just found a way to get younger without lowering the ceiling.
Now that's a formula for winning games in 2013 and beyond.
If the Patriots are to continue winning, the team will do so with youth. Experienced youth.