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Patriots moves followed the game plan

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  March 19, 2012 09:37 AM

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With the Patriots, particularly with regard to free agency, some measure of temperance is required. We all want the big splash. We rarely get it. So the question really concerns whether coach Bill Belichick is addressing those areas we all want him to address.

At the moment, Belichick certainly appears to be doing that, albeit with a cast of characters who carry varying degrees of risk.

While the easy thing is to sit here today and feel good about what was, if nothing else, an active weekend on the football front - I like what they're doing is what the optimists say - here is the truth: we don't really know whether the Patriots had a good weekend or a bad one. On paper, the Patriots have taken at least some steps to address their needs on offense and defense, the most notable acquisition coming in the form of wide receiver Brandon Lloyd. Even with the uncertain status of running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the offense certainly looks to have improved, assuming Lloyd does not have trouble integrating into the offense the way Chad Ochocinco did.

In terms of pass-catching options next season, quarterback Tom Brady now has Lloyd to go along with Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, not to mention Danny Woodhead. The Patriots will score, as always, and they will win as a result of it the large majority of the time.

All of that brings us back to the defense, which remains the top priority and the No. 1 reason the Patriots have not won a championship in seven years despite, perhaps, one of the three greatest decision-makers at quarterback in the history of the league. Certainly, the Patriots defense showed signs of improvement in the playoffs last year, but New England's inability to get off the field in Super Bowl XLVI was one of the primary reasons the Pats once again finished as runners-up to the New York Giants.

Remember, folks: the Baltimore Ravens controlled the ball in the AFC Championship game, too, holding an advantage in time of possession of roughly seven minutes. (That is basically half of one quarter.)

Defensively, clearly, Belichick has a philosophy: over the last two seasons now, he has focused on players who have something to prove. Last year it was Albert Haynesworth, Mark Anderson and Andre Carter. So far this season, it's defensive end/linebacker Trevor Scott and, to an extent, defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene. The latter played in 12 games last season and finished with 6.5 sacks, but he is a former seventh-round draft pick whose greatest asset is clearly his toughness and, as football people like to say, his motor. Scott, meanwhile, is a former sixth-rounder who has not been the same since a knee injury suffered during the 2010 season, which makes him precisely the kind of guy Belichick loves.

Here's the problem: someone like Scott could prove to be Mark Anderson. He could also prove to be Derrick Burgess. Andre Carter and Anderson worked out well last year, but Haynesworth was a colossal bust. Belichick wins some and loses some with this kind of approach, and the only real question now is whether a true impact signing on defense could be the piece that puts the Patriots over the top.

Even someone like safety LaRon Landry is a huge variable because he has played in just 17 games over the last two seasons. Ditto for wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez. The names sound good, but what the Patriots really need is the impact.

Obviously, for Belichick, free agency only is a part of the equation, and the Adalius Thomas fiasco proved that big-ticket players can prove to be unmotivated. There is legitimate cause for concern there. Maybe Belichick has the cornerstones of his defense in place with Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and, perhaps, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty, but New England's defense generally has looked no better than mediocre over at least the last two seasons, which brings us to the most important part of Belichick's team-building options this winter.

The draft.

Next month, more than perhaps any other in Belichick's tenure, we may get some answers with regard to how the Patriots regard the draft. The rookie wage scale is now in place. The Patriots have four selections in the first two rounds, including two first-rounders at Nos. 27 (from New Orleans) and 31. Since drafting Wilfork in 2004, Belichick has only taken one defensive player in the front seven during the first round of the draft, that being Mayo in 2008. The rest of the time, the Patriots have either selected a different position or traded out of the first round entirely, a theory that we all have attributed to the team's never-ending quest for value.

Thanks to the wage scale and New England's seemingly endless regeneration of draft picks, the Pats now seem perfectly positioned to strike. Belichick could simply use the picks he has. Or he could trade up. Nobody would lament New England's approach in free agency if the Patriots now aggressively attack the draft, all with the idea of giving quarterback Tom Brady the necessary support from his defense as Brady enters the final years of his career.

But what if the Patriots back off again next month and stockpile picks for future years, taking as controlled approach to the draft as they do to free agency? What will that tell us?

Indeed, in the coming hours, days, and weeks, a great deal could still change on the NFL landscape. Peyton Manning will make his decision. Tim Tebow may change uniforms, perhaps even landing in Foxborough (according to John Clayton of ESPN) to be reunited with former coach Josh McDaniels. The Patriots will make their draft selections. Only then will we get a real understanding of where the Patriots are and just how much emphasis they are putting on improving their defense.

The weekend? All things considered, it was a consistent, predictable performance based on how the Patriots have done things in the past.

But at this stage, it remains far too difficult to discern whether the Patriots are better - or worse.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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