How can the Pats maximize the end of the Brady-Belichick era?
Super Bowl XLVIII is officially in the books, meaning preparation for the 2014 NFL season is officially underway.
While the New England Patriots fell short of their lofty championship expectations in 2013, improved health and a few reinforcements should put the Pats back in contention for that elusive fourth Super Bowl. As last season proved, only Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are truly indispensable.
Nevertheless, the Patriots' supporting cast was lacking this past season. Not all of that was New England's fault, as no one could have foreseen the Aaron Hernandez situation or the plethora of season-ending injuries. Still, one can point to multiple decisions and question if the Patriots gave themselves the best chance to win.
So how can the Pats climb back up the Super Bowl mountain and reach the peak, something they have failed to do the last nine years? The months ahead provide plenty of opportunity for critique, so for now, here's a snapshot of where the Patriots stand at the beginning of the 2014 team-building process.
It was a painful year for Gronk and the Pats.
A lot of Pats followers compared the past season to the 2006 campaign, in which a similarly overachieving Patriots team clawed their way to an AFC Championship appearance. The difference is that the 2013 team was significantly more talented, but injuries undermined a potentially championship-caliber roster.
Indeed, New England's depth was tested in virtually every unit except quarterback. Injuries to Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly robbed the front seven of its sturdy foundation. Rookie receivers struggled with huge early-season burdens. The running back rotation changed numerous times due to injuries and fumbling issues.
The Patriots were a truly amorphous squad, adapting three totally disparate identities: a defensively oriented team early in the season, an offensive juggernaut following Rob Gronkowski's return and a clock-controlling team effective in situational football by season's end.
Bill Belichick garnered Coach of the Year consideration because of his ability to make his chameleon roster constantly change its colors on the fly. Yes, a weak AFC aided the Pats' deep postseason run, but to reach the conference championship with such a battered roster was a tremendous accomplishment.
Not all was lost in the wreckage, either. Young players like Jamie Collins, Aaron Dobson, Logan Ryan and Marcus Cannon were thrust into far greater roles than anyone anticipated them holding at the beginning of the year. While all made mistakes at the time, they look like clear pieces of the 2014 puzzle and should bear expanded duties next season.
Aaron Hernandez is holding the Pats' salary cap hostage.
The Patriots' salary cap is not as tidy as it typically is. With a projected salary cap of $126.3 million, according to Albert Breer, the Patriots are actually about $100,000 over the 2014 projection at the moment, per Spotrac.com.
There are easy ways for the Pats to open up a little breathing room, however. They will be able to carry over $4.1 million, which is how far they were under the cap in 2013. Moreover, cuts like Isaac Sopoaga and Adrian Wilson could net a few million more in savings. The Patriots might also try to restructure contracts with hefty cap numbers like Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins and Stephen Gostkowski.
The elephant in the room, of course, is Aaron Hernandez, who carries a staggering $7.5 million in dead money on the Pats' cap. During Super Bowl week, owner Robert Kraft suggested to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald that the Pats would try to recoup some or all of that salary.
It's impossible to discern what will eventually happen with the Hernandez situation, though obviously any money the Patriots could get back would be a huge benefit to their offseason planning. Fan fantasies of Eric Decker are pipe dreams at the moment, but adding a huge chunk of cap space could enable the Pats to chase a bigger free agent, even if that has never been their modus operandi.
In fact, before anyone starts ruminating over potential additions, the Patriots' biggest free agency concerns are about retention.
Keeping Aqib Talib is the Pats' top free agent priority.
The Patriots have an interesting mix of free agents, from cornerstone stars to sneaky underrated contributors.
Most of the attention will gravitate around top cornerback Aqib Talib and receiver Julian Edelman. Talib looks indispensable and, despite his frustrating injury history, is indisputably the Patriots' best corner. Without Talib, the Patriots entire press-man coverage philosophy changes, and his departure would likely necessitate a draft pick at the position or moving safety Devin McCourty back outside.
Edelman is a trickier proposition. It seems conceivable that he could earn a contract similar to the five-year, $28.5 million deal the Pats handed Danny Amendola last season. Given their overlap in skills, the Patriots might be hesitant to devote over $50 million to two fairly redundant players. Thus, Edelman looks more likely to leave unless his market fails to develop as expected.
Elsewhere, New England figures to try and retain 2013 starters Ryan Wendell and Michael Hoomanawanui. Wendell might receive some camp competition, given his struggles against bigger defensive tackles like Denver's Terrance Knighton, but is a steady presence who comes with little risk. "Hooman," meanwhile, became the de facto No. 1 tight end and should return as a solid blocker at the position.
Conversely, 2013 starters Brandon Spikes and LeGarrette Blount are likely gone. The acrimonious end to Spikes' season effectively seals his Foxboro fate, and it would be a shock if he is back. The Pats would likely be amenable to keeping Blount, but given his late-season surge and the Patriots back-by-committee philosophy, he may have priced himself out of New England.
Could tight end Jace Amaro be a fit in Foxboro?
With better health in 2014, the Patriots do not figure to have a ton of glaring needs. Nevertheless, there are positions where age and depth call for reinforcements, areas where the Pats are likely to devote draft resources.
There will be a myriad of mock drafts and speculation until May 8, but a few names are already starting to emerge in connection with the Patriots. Tight end looks like a prime area to target early, with ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. slotting Texas Tech's Jace Amaro to New England in the first round (Insider subscription required):
It's a credit to the Patriots the way they've battled through a decimated group of tight ends compared to what they had going into the summer, but Amaro can offer immediate help for 2014. Amaro has great size but far more quickness than you'd expect from a player with this frame, and worked out of the slot for Tech. He catches the ball with ease, away from his body, and will get you yards after the catch. The fit seems clear given the uncertainty at the position for the Patriots, but I'm also sure the phone lines will be open as the Patriots look for options to move down and pile up picks.
Someone like Amaro or Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins would give the Patriots a lethal all-around weapon to pair with a hopefully healthy Rob Gronkowski. After a year in which Tom Brady worked with a makeshift receiving corps, the Patriots seem likely to try and upgrade his support system.
Besides tight end, positions like defensive tackle or the interior offensive line spots could receive early-round attention. Keep an eye on prospects like Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman, Notre Dame's Louis Nix III and Baylor's Cyril Richardson as draft day inches closer.
Bill Belichick is losing his right hand man.
The Patriots have experienced plenty of coordinator turnover in the Belichick era, but the abundance of position coaches leaving is a new experience.
The most noteworthy defection is the retirement of offensive line coach and assistant head coach Dante Scarnecchia. "Scar" served as a Patriots position coach for 30 years, including the offensive line for the last 15 seasons. His impeccable coaching tenure finally earned some national attention this year, and the Pats' ability to turn raw prospects like Stephen Neal, Dan Koppen and Sebastian Vollmer into long-time starters is a testament to Scarnecchia's ability.
Pepper Johnson also left for Buffalo after a 14-year run in Foxboro, the majority of which he served as a linebackers coach. Belichick passed on Johnson multiple times for the defensive coordinator position, leading some to believe the end was bitter, but Johnson had nothing but praise for the Patriots organization.
To fill the voids, the Pats have hired Dave DeGuglielmo as the new offensive line coach and Brendan Daly as a defensive assistant. Daly, with eight years of NFL coaching experience, has a defensive line background and could fill a role similar to the one Johnson left. DeGuglielmo has coached nine NFL seasons, most recently for the Jets in 2012, and will have huge shoes to fill.
Belichick obviously still runs the show, but it will be interesting how much input the new assistants have. Belichick's influence has become increasingly unchecked over the past decade, and an infusion of new faces and ideas could be beneficial.
Can the Pats maximize the end of the Brady era?
It is axiomatic to say that so long as Tom Brady is standing, the Patriots have a chance. But with Brady turning 37 before the start of the 2014 season, it is also fair to ask how much longer that stand will last.
Patriots fans are understandably antsy, and many believe the Patriots should "load up" for a last championship hurrah. Though that sounds nice in theory, it is a deeply flawed construction that requires plenty of injury luck and leaves almost no room for error.
Think of the league's best teams. Rosters like the Seahawks and 49ers are characterized by their depth and cost-controlled talent. Stars like Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Richard Sherman and Patrick Willis are not only terrific players, but cheap contracts that allow for a stronger middle and lower class.
Now think of teams that continually abide by the "all-in" mindset. Dallas and Washington resemble dogs chasing their own tails, as they throw heaps of money at their problems every offseason in a futile attempt to build an instant winner, only to dig themselves into deeper holes.
The Patriots are not going to sacrifice depth and development for instant fixes. 2013 was the best validation yet of their emphasis on value. Despite the loss of numerous irreplaceable stars, the Pats were able to minimize the inevitable drop-off, enough to scratch out a 12-4 record and unlikely conference championship appearance.
New England is not blind, and the front office understands the Brady era is winding down. Rather than panicking, however, the Patriots understand that "more support" for Brady might entail a better defense, or a deeper offensive line to protect their most valuable player.
Yes, Brady needs more help than he received in 2013. And rather than placing all their eggs in a few expensive baskets, New England would be wise to spread out the risk and return with one of the AFC's deepest and most talented rosters.