Now that the New England Patriots' fans have moved beyond their recent disappointment (OK, so maybe we shouldn't go that far), they can get in step with the rest of the football freaks, which is to say, "Let's start talking free agents and draft!"
As with many a franchise, these two events will be inextricably linked in 2008. Some 12 Patriots are set to become unrestricted free agents, most of whom help comprise a virtual "Who's Who" of recent New England success. Check out these names: Troy Brown, Tedy Bruschi, Jabar Gaffney, Randall Gay, Larry Izzo, Mel Mitchell, Randy Moss, Lonie Paxton, Asante Samuel, Chad Scott, Junior Seau, and Eugene Wilson.
Well-aged and generally expected to retire with the Corey Dillon treatment are Brown (who was essentially the last player taken on to the roster in 2007, spent most of the season injured, and ultimately miffed his first chance for a special-teams return with a fumble); Bruschi, who mulled over retirement last year; and Seau, who at 40 may be ready to leave grad school.
The secondary is certain to require some sort of reassembly in 2008, with the potential departures of Gay, Mitchell, Scott and Wilson—making matters worse is the talk of Rodney Harrison's retirement.
Seemingly certain to split is Samuel, a player about whom the homers will, well, have mixed feelings. After seeing him emerge as a star/superstar in 2005 and 2006, Samuel disappointingly made for what passed as distraction in the Patriot offseason, holding out throughout training camp in defiance of the "franchise player" label stamped on him by the front office. Samuel turned in a decent year, even if his coverage went mostly limp after, say, Week 12 against Philadelphia.
And, of course, there was the missed interception in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLII, which will precipitate some Patriot backers to gleefully anticipate seeing the man's back as he departs Boston.
There were vague threats and speculation that the Patriot front office would turn around and re-slap the franchise tag right back on Samuel this season, but those rumors were floated long ago—today, Moss is a heavy part of the offseason equation.
Re-signing Gay, Scott, and Wilson would appear to be a top priority for the Pats, then. Gay came on in the second half on the season, impressively enough to make New Englanders comfortable with the prospect of a starting twosome of he and Ellis Hobbs in 2008; this would be an enviably youthful pairing with Gay and Hobbs currently at just 25 and 24 years of age, respectively.
Wilson should be considered a necessary re-up as well, despite a nasty proclivity to injury. While missing a total of 17 regular-season games the past two years, Wilson has established himself as a playmaker and as the team's top coverage defender. Clearly, the guy is worth the risk of at least one more season.
For Izzo, 2008 would be his 12th season—all but four with New England—on an active NFL roster, but he has been utterly since injury-free. At 33, figure Bob Kraft & Co. to offer Izzo a one-year deal worth the minimum.
Then there's the offense. While the defensive side of the roster figures to be holier than consecrated Swiss cheese going into Draft Day, the offense figures to return almost entirely intact after beefing up so mightily last season. Patriots '08 will include Laurence Maroney and multi-threat Kevin Faulk (he'll be one of the just four or five remaining from the Super Bowl XXXVI team), and that offensive line—which, for 18 games, looked like the finest of all-time.
The most interesting subplot vis-à-vis re-signing (okay, second most. No, third...) could well be the question of Jabar Gaffney, who held on by the fingertips to survive the roster cleansing of 2006's no-name receiving corps last preseason. Once defenses became ultra-paranoid of Moss and awoke to the possibilities of Donte' Stallworth as long-ball threat, the door was open for Gaffney to contribute late in the year and into the playoffs: Five of his six TD catches in 2007 came in Week 12 (again, versus Philadelphia) or later.
Now, how much could Gaffney command on the open market? And would he choose to go out there in the first place, assuming (fairly enough) he believes the Patriots have a real chance to return to the Super Bowl and they won't seriously consider a single receiver in the draft or the free-agent pool?
Finally, there's Moss. On one hand, Moss has claimed he wants to retire a Patriot. On the other hand, some folks were odd enough to reckon that Moss was the true NFL MVP this past season; he certainly definitively proved himself to be a one-man wrecking crew on the way to the record books in 2007, a reputation that's worth big bucks come free agency time. How much do you figure, say, the Buccaneers would pay for the guy? Or how about whoever lands Donovan McNabb?
Moss' re-upping would appear to depend at least a significant amount on the Patriots' status as contender in 2008. And that's the crux of the matter with these Patriots right now, isn't it? The offense is guaranteed to put up points, but quickly rebuilding the 'D' will require diplomatic renegotiation, an extremely clever draft weekend, and wooing free agents by reputation.
Why quickly? Check out the contracts. In 2009, a man by the name of Tom Brady gets to renegotiate...
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