Tuesday, March 06, 2007

So, the Patriots have been more active in this free agency period than they have in the past. It is and it isn't a surprise. It was obvious from the way they wore down in the playoffs that they'd have to reload. The loss against the Colts was the first time they'd given away a game of that magnitude when they led in the second half since the dynasty began. It was just a question of how the team would go about it, through free agency or the draft.

Apparently, they've elected free agency. It makes some sense, since they seem to have lost their mojo in the draft at some point in the last two or three seasons. With the notable exception of Maroney, last season's draft was a disappointment. Chad Jackson is delivering fifth round pick performance on a second round pick salary. He may get better, but then again he may not. There is no reason he shouldn't have emerged as the team's number one receiver this past season, not so much because he's amazingly talented but because it's a pathetic group against which to compete.

Stephen Gostkowski has made some big kicks to this point, but I think it's too soon to evaluate a kicker. Place kicking is a strange racket. There are some guys who burst on the scene like Matin Grammatica in Tampa Bay and then fade away. Unfortunately, careers don't often rebound the way his has with the Cowboys. There are guys like Vanderjagt who (before his career went into respiratory failure in Dallas this season) only miss two or three kicks a year, but they happen to be the biggest kicks. But the Pats got through one season and letting Vinatieri go did not prove to be their undoing, so I should give credit to the team for that.

The other picks left something to be desired. Yes, David Thomas caught a big TD in San Diego, but the Patriots were fairly well stocked with TEs. For my part, I do not believe that Thomas made Daniel Graham expendable. Graham did that to himself, looking for top of the line TE money on a relatively parsimonious team which already had a much better TE in Ben Watson under contract who just happened to be younger to boot. I can't figure why they drafted another TE in the fourth round (Garrett Mills), but that's just me.

Ryan O'Callaghan started the first few games of the season, but he was far from inspiring. I guess any evaluation of his performance will be tied to your opinion of the team as a whole. I am not a Pats fan, so I think he was a bust. A Pats fan might say that his contributions were what you can reasonably expect from a fifth round pick. He might be in trouble if DeBrickishaw Ferguson is just the first in a trend of lighter, more athletic tackles to counter the smaller, speedier defensive ends like Dwight Freeney.

We'll have to wait and see on the other picks from last season. The draft is important, but not the only way to build a team. After all, the 1979 Steelers were the only team to win the championship with a roster of players who had only played for the Steelers at that point in their careers. It's still important, though. To keep playing at a high level, an NFL team needs to have significant contributions from its late round picks. Consider the Bears, their leading sacker was Mark Anderson, a fifth round pick. Or the Saints, with wide receivers like Marques Colston and Terrence Copper.

Although it wasn't necessarily the case in past years, this Patriots team needs immediate veteran help at a number of positions. Their linebacking corps in particular needed an upgrade. Age and health problems have taken their toll on Teddy Bruschi. More surprising was the decline of Mike Vrabel, who looked like Imhotep in the Mummy after he'd lost his supernatural powers at the end of the season. And of course the wide receiver position was not exactly a strength.

The Patriots have, to this point, made two moves to upgrade their linebacking corps. First, they signed Baltimore OLB Adalius Thomas. Perhaps more importantly, the team engaged in the underrated process of addition by subtraction. Tully Banta-Cain who was probably the 37th best linebacker in the AFC last season has departed for San Francisco. Alas, I couldn't ascertain by my astute investigative reporting whether he had flowers in his hair or not.

Patriots fans seem delighted with the Thomas signing. I am not as disappointed as you might expect. Unlike the average person who follows football, I have a very long memory. I can recall the strange case of Edgerton Hartwell. For those of you who don't remember him, he was once a promising inside linebacker playing next to Ray Lewis in the Ravens defense. He parlayed that into a 6 year contract with Falcons worth $26.25 million. Unfortunately for him, and the Falcons, Hartwell couldn't stay healthy. This offseason, as his former teammate Thomas made the big splash signing with the Pats, Hartwell was a footnote on the transaction wire as the Falcons cut their losses and released him.

At least I'm not the only one bringing up concerns in the wake of the Thomas signing. This writer on SI.com has a piece of his column on the Pats signing devoted to the list of free agents who have left Baltimore for greener pastures only to leave their mojo behind. It is not a short list, either. Gery Baxter, cornerback for the Ravens, turnstile for the Browns is just one of its members. I take issue, however, with the inclusion of Anthony Weaver. Yes, he had half as many sacks in 2006 as he did in his last season in Baltimore, but he only had 2 sacks that year. Of course, my defense of Weaver just might be related to the fact that he played at Notre Dame.

I am not convinced that Wes Welker is a significant upgrade at the wide receiver position. As you read this, if you are new to this blog, I guess I ought to point out that I have a significant antipathy to Wes Welker. Due to the bizarre priorities of the "people" who established the default scoring system for Fox Sports Fantasy Football, return yards were worth as much as receiving yards and more than rushing yards. So I ended up losing a game by 3 points when Welker went for 19.7 for my opponent. I blogged about it at length in the wake of that catastrophe, so you can read it if you want here.

Welker's career stats aren't overly impressive. One could argue that he is a more proven commodity as than what the team could expect from the two picks the team gave up to get him (2nd and 7th rounds). That may be true, but then last season's best return man, Devin Hester, was a 3rd round pick. I think the most important aspect of this pick is that it should free Maroney from returning kicks. I guess that's nothing to sneeze at, but I think that the Patriots will end up regretting the last few drafts, and giving up picks in this one, three or four years from now. Remember it when it happens that you heard it here first.


mgildart said...

Vrabel was asked to play out of position much of the year due to lack of depth at the position. that accounts for much of his decline in production.

thecincinattikid said...

That accounts for his decline in numbers, but he also seemed a step or two slower than he was.