FOXBOROUGH Ė You wouldnít want to participate in a high-stakes poker games with Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Cards? What cards? Iím not holding any cards, the coach would say with a straight face.
While he keeps his remarkable poker-face at the podium, his actions tip his hand a bit. Even if he wonít tell his transactions serve as a tell.
This year Belichick is all in, similar to 2007. The Hoodie is in hurry-up mode, hurry up and win because he knows that this Patriots team probably won't or canít look the same next season.
Thatís why heís stacking the deck on the defensive line, signing every NFL defensive lineman who can chew gum and get in a three-point stance. Thatís why he brought in diva wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and gambled on recalcitrant defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth. Thatís why the Patriots brought back left tackle Matt Light on a two-year deal and guaranteed him $7 million four months after they drafted his replacement.
This could be the Patriots' last shot to win with this current core group, and Belichick knows it. Itís a smart play.
The year 2012 may or may not mark the end of the world, but it will likely mark the end of the careers of a few cornerstone players for the Patriots. Players with Super Bowl rings earned in Fort Foxborough are already an endangered species.
Itís down to a decorated half-dozen: Tom Brady, Light, running back Kevin Faulk, wide receiver Deion Branch, center Dan Koppen and nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who was a rookie the last time the Patriots lifted the Lombardi Trophy in February 2005.
Branch and Koppen are both eligible for free agency after this season. So is Brady security blanket Wes Welker, who has caught more passes (432) than any receiver in the NFL since coming to New England in 2007.
Itís entirely possible that Light, who has protected Bradyís blindside since 2001, could not return for the second year of his deal. The Patriots drafted his heir apparent, Nate Solder, this year, and while Light will carry a cap-friendly $1 million base salary this year his base salary jumps to $3.4 million next year when he will be 34.
One way or the other this season looks like it's it for the venerable Faulk, the only player on the roster who predates the arrival of Belichick.
Thatís not to mention the plight of left guard Logan Mankins, who if he isnít signed to a long-term deal by Sept. 20 canít sign an extension until after the season, per the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement with regards to players playing under the franchise tag.
If there is a recurrence of the currency debate that played out last year between the team and Mr. Mankins then he could be a flight risk as well.
Chalk it all up and you have a recipe for urgency in 2011 because you have roster uncertainty in 2012.
The simple fact is this: Brady, who turned 34 last week, isnít getting any younger, but the team around him is. That presents a problem for the Patriots. They need to win while their franchise quarterback is still in his prime, but they have to do it while their rebuilt defense isnít quite ready for prime time.
Belichick doesnít have time to develop a pass rusher or wait for one to emerge. He needs a quick fix to his quarterback pressure quandary. Whether his defense is a 3-4, a 4-3 or a hybrid it has to be better at harassing the passer.
Thatís why a steady stream of pass-rush types and pocket-pushers have been auditioning in Foxborough since the lockout was lifted.
Itís why Belichick is hoping that defensive end Mark Anderson can be rejuvenated off Route 1.
Itís why Belichick spent $4 million to swipe Shaun Ellis, who ranks 10th among active players in sacks with 72.5, from the Jets. If it rattled the cage of Ryan and Jets general manager Mike Tannebaum that he got the longest-tenured Jet to defect to his side of the Border War that's an added bonus.
Itís why veteran defensive end Andre Carter, who has 66 career sacks, said after his first practice as a Patriots yesterday that his role here will be simple -- to ďput your hand in the dirt and go.Ē
Itís why big Gerard Warren, a Haynesworth insurance policy, is back this year.
Belichick is betting on 30-somethings with proven NFL track records Ė Ellis is 34; Warren is 33; Carter is 32; Haynesworth is 30. When chasing a championship itís better to gamble on players that might be over the hill than those that may never get over the hump.
Like any gambling man, Belichick is playing a numbers game. He has so many defensive linemen on the 90-man roster Ė 21 if you include outside linebacker/defensive ends Jermaine Cunningham and Markell Carter Ė that ďHoardersĒ is going to come calling.
But you have to figure that out of this farrago of front-seven players he will forge a more formidable defense than the one that has contributed to the team going o-fer and out in the playoffs the last two years, one capable of playing at a championship level in the near future and not the distant one.
How many more opportunities can the Patriots let go by the boards? They have 2006 and 2007 and last yearís wasted 14-2 campaign. You only get so many chances before you run out of chips.
All the more reason to go for broke while you still have them.
...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.