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Imitating Indy

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  March 8, 2010 12:56 PM

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Not to be a fatalist, but maybe the Mayans were right and the end is near. Because these are strange times.

Last week, it was nearly as warm here as it was in Fort Myers, Fla., Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian, speaking at an MIT sports symposium, came out and defended Bill Belichick, and Belichick borrowed from the Colts' team-building blueprint during the start of NFL free agency.

The Patriots' focus in the first foray of free agency was on taking care of their own, building, or rebuilding, from within.

They signed franchise-tagged nose tackle Vince Wilfork to a five-year, $40 million deal, re-upped outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain with a three-year, $13.5 million deal (with incentives and escalators that could push the value of the deal near $19 million) and put off starting right guard Stephen Neal's retirement with a two-year deal.

All three players were brought into the league by the Patriots and developed by them. Banta-Cain, a 2003 seventh-round pick, had a two-year detour in San Francisco, but the prodigal pass rusher returned last season and led the team in sacks with 10.

The signings didn't just send an important message to the players in the locker room about the team's financial philosophy; it also sent an important message about the direction of the team. You would think that after a disappointing 10-6 season and the playoff obliteration at the hands of Baltimore that Belichick would be inclined to blow the team up and start over. Instead he's bringing it back and in the process creating the type of continuity the Colts have and the Patriots used to have.

The Patriots want to lock up cornerback Leigh Bodden, who is in Houston today, and defensive end Jarvis Green. We all expect running back Kevin Faulk to return.

The "Pay-tree-aughts" as Polian would say, also have four picks in the top 53, including a trio of second-rounders. This has been Polian's plan, shell out the money for the players on your roster you value and then build the rest of the team around them with draft picks or low-budget pickups.

Belichick has always said he does what is in the best interest of the team. The translation for that is that you can't pin him or the team down to any one way of doing business. But this does feel like a paradigm shift at Patriot Place.

Since the end of the 2006 season, the Patriots had become too reliant on Hessian soliders to fortify Fort Foxborough. They have assumed they can simply plug an accomplished or semi-accomplished veteran player into their system and he will succeed. But just like a suit sometimes reputation doesn't equal fit.

Belichick is going bespoke, with players he already knows are fits.

Bodden might be the biggest test of this strategy. While Bodden has had success playing in the Belichick system here and in Cleveland under former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, he is not as wedded to it as you might think.

Bodden was available to the Patriots at a discount ($2.25 million) last season because the Detroit Lions cut him before he had a roster bonus due that would have kicked in a four-year, $27 million extension.

When Bodden signed the extension with two years left on his deal, he essentially had a six-year contract for $30.5 million. You can guess that $5 million a year will be what he is aiming for this time around too. That might be a bit rich for the Patriots' blood at cornerback, a position where they believe the system covers receivers just as much as the player does.

However, the alternative could be a return to 2008, when they couldn't cover anyone. Corner and pass rusher are positions where you either have to draft well or pay well to get talent, and if you do the former you usually have to do the latter. That's what the Colts did with Kelvin Hayden, who got a five-year, $43 million deal with more than $22 million in guarantees.

Not everything in New England has been an inside job.

The Patriots did make plays for some big-name outside help in defensive end Julius Peppers and wide receiver Anquan Boldin. Both players would have filled immediate needs -- an upgraded pass rush and another outside receiver, opposite Randy Moss.

But re-signing Wilfork and bringing in Peppers wasn't going to happen, and I'll take the guy  who costs less and whose pilot light ignites every Sunday.

Boldin was a different situation. The Patriots didn't want to commit to an extension for the former Florida State star. He was traded to Baltimore, along with a fifth-round pick, for third- and fourth-round picks, plus the Ravens re-did his contract. The 29-year-old Boldin, who had one year at $3 million left on his contract, got three years and $25 million tacked on.

It might have been money well spent for the Patriots.

Buffalo's Josh Reed, who is scheduled to be in town today for a free agent visit, is no Boldin. He's merely a stopgap in the slot for Welker, and his signing could indicate the Patriots plan to play Julian Edelman some at the X receiver, something they did last year before Welker went down.

A pass-catching tight end would also be nice, and it might be worth a call to Denver to ask old pal Josh McDaniels what it would take to get Jay Cutler-sympathizer Tony Scheffler to come be the Patriots' version of Dallas Clark.

But the Patriots don't want to take too many pages from Polian's playbook. Because nobody remembers a 14-2 team that didn't win the Super Bowl, but a 16-0 one remains historic.
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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news


...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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