(Originally posted on 4SportBoston.com )
The Patriots' season has been over for just under two weeks now, and there has been a storm of hypotheses and theorems as to the how and the wherefore it ended so (un)expectedly soon. Depending on where one is sitting, the Patriots of 2009 overachieved, underachieved, got booted from the playoffs unexpectedly soon, and/or unexpectedly made the playoffs. Turns out no one had the slightest idea what to expect from this squad.
The most inane theory to date is that this season was a "rebuilding year" for the Patriots. The idea that expectations should have been tempered this season because the Patriots were attempting an "out with the old, in with the new" approach to make this team better for 2010. Sorry folks, I know you're just trying to make yourselves feel better, but stop kidding yourselves. This championship, now being fought over by the likes of the Jets, Colts, Saints and Vikings, was just as sought-after for these Patriots as any that had come before.
The idea that any NFL team is in a temporary "rebuilding" state is simply something owners say to make their fans more compliant with their errant spending, or fans invent to soften the blow of a crushing playoff loss.
NFL teams are constantly in a state of flux. Each year, dozens upon dozens of league-ready college players are selected into the ranks of the National Football League. This process is much different than Major League Baseball's, whose draftees usually aren't ready for professional competition for years, and even the NBA, since nearly every team selecting in the first round of the NFL draft has the opportunity to select a player who is ready to contribute right now.
Throughout their run as the now-semi-disputed "Team of the Decade", no one has been better at adding numerous talented cogs to their machine as the New England Patriots. Beginning with selecting Tom Brady 199th overall, everything the Patriots touched on Draft Days seemed to turn to gold.
They deftly maneuvered their position when possible to accumulate more picks, while trading for such every-day contributors as Randy Moss and Wes Welker (just before the draft, acquired for draft picks), you may know them. The trick to keeping your team highly competitive year after year is getting more value than your draft pick is projected to be worth.
When a team is so lucky to have stars develop (some through luck, some through great scouting, all through staying healthy), the plan then shifts to adding low-money role players into the fold to create a balanced, talented team with no "holes." From 2000-2006, the Patriots ruled over the annual two-day event while building a team which accomplished feats such as three Super Bowl wins and an undefeated 2007 regular season, just to name a couple. However, in 2007, draft-day events started to unravel for the Pats.
With only a single pick in the 2007 NFL Draft (Brandon Meriweather - selected 24th overall) in the first three rounds, the team was sorely lacking in young talent. However, since so many other players (first and foremost, the offensive linemen) reached their absolute professional zenith, and the team bashed their way to a 16-0 regular season record, no one seemed to notice.
Then, in 2008, the Patriots forfeited their first round pick (what would have been the 31st overall) for illegal on-field recording activities. Luckily, the Patriots had previously traded into the sixth pick overall (eventually trading down to tenth) and landed Jerod Mayo out of the potential disaster. However, despite their wheeling and dealing in years prior, the Patriots only came out of the draft with two picks in the first two rounds, despite spending the assets to get three.
Now we're starting to come to the ugly conclusion, aren't we?
The Patriots landed precisely three players in first and second rounds of the 2007 and 2008 NFL Drafts. One of the three, Terrence Wheatley, despite showing much promise, has missed a great deal of time to a wrist injury. The other two, Mayo and Meriweather, are now every-day, vital contributors to the Patriots. Of the crop of draftees now reaching their emotional and athletic prime, the Patriots have only two of the plethora of highly-touted prospects.
In the last draft, the Patriots fared decidedly better, nabbing four picks in the second round, three of which (Patrick Chung, Darius Butler and Sebastian Vollmer) had valuable contributions in the 2009 regular season.
What makes this team seem like they're in a "rebuilding process" is the lack of a headline-grabbing addition over the past two seasons. The closest they came was the expensive signing of free agent linebacker Adalius Thomas, who has been utterly disappointing since injuring his knee in his second season with the Pats in 2008 (and not particularly outstanding before that, either).
The primary focus of the Patriots' brass now becomes adding one or two "key" guys before the start of the 2010 season. With four top-two-round picks coming up in April (one first, three second), and two first-round picks in 2011 (their own, and one potential top-10 overall pick acquired from Oakland for Richard Seymour).
Although they have the pieces to add big names in the long run by keeping these picks, the more realistic plan would be to trade some of them to add one or two stars to the offense (at wide receiver or running back) and/or the defense (a shut-down cornerback or stud middle linebacker) while they still have pieces (Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Randy Moss, the center-left side of the offensive line, Vince Wilfork and others) that make them a potential Super Bowl contender every year.
On a related note: Wouldn't very-tradable wideouts Chad Johnson or Anquan Boldin look just fantastic in a Patriots uniform?
Rebuilding? Well, yeah. But honestly, who isn't (outside of Detroit or Oakland) constantly doing just that these days?