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Puzzling status

Patriots need new pieces; can they put it all together?

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / January 12, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH - The last time the Patriots were humbled with a roundhouse like the one they got from the Ravens on Sunday, they responded with the kind of knockout punch that put NFL history in their crosshairs.

So the Colts wanted to roar back from a 21-3 deficit in the AFC title game in January of 2007? So the Patriots lacked the offensive weaponry to keep up with Indy? So the pass defense made Peyton Manning feel like he was in 7-on-7s at the practice facility, and not in a real game?

The Patriots spent that offseason telling the rest of the league to watch out. Randy Moss, Adalius Thomas, Wes Welker, Donte’ Stallworth, and Sammy Morris headlined one of the strongest offseason hauls of veteran players imaginable.

And since New England’s loss to the Ravens was even worse and perhaps more eye-opening, it stands to reason it’s time for the whole thing to be made over again.

Tread carefully with your hopes in that regard.

Back in 2007, the Patriots had a boatload of players in their late 20s or early 30s, and while it was seen as a reloading at the time, it looks like more of a last gasp.

Tom Brady will be 33 on Opening Day 2010, as will Moss. Welker will be coming off knee reconstruction surgery, if he can make it back by then. The offensive line has questions with the future of Stephen Neal, Logan Mankins, and Matt Light up in the air. And the defense has more issues than this paragraph can contain.

For all the problems the 2006 team had, this fundamental fact drove the 2007 offseason - those Patriots were close to being a championship team. If that team held on in Indy, it would have beaten the Bears in the Super Bowl and raised banner No. 4.

The 2009 team, on the other hand, was completely outclassed at home by the Ravens. The Patriots already had been blown up in the regular season by the Saints, and blew double-digit leads in Indianapolis and Houston. It produced the first playoff one-and-done in the Belichick Era and, for the second straight year, the Patriots failed to be the final AFC East team standing.

As Bill Belichick and Co. evaluate 2009, that will have to be part of their thinking. Do they make a splash? Or would that be like putting chrome rims on a totaled Bentley?

“We’re not trying to replicate some other year or something else,’’ Belichick said. “We try to look at the 2010 team and figure out what will make that the best. It’s an ongoing process. It will be thorough and hopefully we’ll make good decisions that will improve our football team.’’

The players coming and going will be dictated by the approach the Patriots take after evaluating the roster. With the uncertain labor situation ahead, and youth on the roster, will they infuse the team with early 20s athletes, play them, and pay the price of being green? Or will they load up on vets?

Some questions will have to be answered either way, though. Here are a few:

What about the quarterback? Brady’s deal expires after the 2010 season, and this is the closest he’s come to the end of a contract since becoming a Patriot in 2000. He signed a four-year extension in 2002 with two years left on his rookie deal, then inked a six-year deal in 2005 with two seasons left on that accord.

In August, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers signed six-year contracts worth $16.25 million and $15.5 million per season, respectively. Jay Cutler got a two-year, $30 million extension in October. Peyton Manning is headed for a contract year as well, and Colts owner Jim Irsay said an extension is “a given.’’

Brady’s never been one to siphon every last dime. But with the possibility the Colts once again could reset the market for quarterbacks in an uncapped environment, this one could be complicated.

And the coaches? If history is your guide, Bill O’Brien will be handed the offensive coordinator title after a year running the offense without it, the same way Josh McDaniels was, and even the way Belichick was elevated to defensive coordinator with the Giants by Bill Parcells in the mid-’80s.

But the offense was inconsistent all season, and Brady often seemed frustrated with the loss of an experienced play-caller. Will Nick Caserio return to the sideline? Will an outsider be ushered in? It’s worth watching.

Will the veterans be ushered out? It seems like Adalius Thomas’s relationship with the Patriots is in disrepair. Shawn Springs was inactive four games, and while the possibility the team could lose Leigh Bodden might make it more difficult, Springs could be jettisoned as well, without the cap ramifications that would make such moves tough in the past.

With the emergence of Sebastian Vollmer, the Patriots might determine that Light, with one year left on his deal, is expendable. And Fred Taylor’s health could force another tough decision. Kevin Faulk’s another vet with a contract set to expire.

Bottom line: What happens with these 30-somethings could be a barometer for the team’s approach. One thing clear is the locker room chemistry was off this season, and that dynamic will be part of the decision-making.

How about some awkward situations? The Patriots have three Pro Bowl-experienced players with expiring deals - six-year vet Vince Wilfork, five-year vet Mankins, and four-year vet Stephen Gostkowski. It won’t be hard to lock up each player’s rights.

The Patriots can franchise Wilfork, in essence, taking him off the market. Mankins and Gostkowski will be restricted free agents in the uncapped year, meaning the team can make affordable tender offers to both, which will force any team pursuing them to pay the Patriots an exorbitant amount of draft pick compensation to sign them.

Expect a fight from the players’ camps, all of which are seeking long-term deals. Wilfork has waited six years, was a good soldier and played through injuries this season, and has said he’d be upset if he’s tagged. Mankins and Gostkowski would be unrestricted in the old system and, as is the case with Wilfork, wouldn’t mind a chance to pursue the contract to set each up for life.

Is there a free agent splash coming? The free agent market will be depleted because of the unavailability of fourth- and fifth-year pros, taking potential “splash’’ players such as Shawne Merriman, Barrett Ruud, Oshiomogho Atogwe, DeMeco Ryans, Vincent Jackson, Brandon Marshall, Darren Sproles, and Elvis Dumervil off the open market.

There’s one big fish to keep an eye on - Julius Peppers. Remember, the Patriots sniffed around Moss for quite some time before trading for him, so last year’s rumblings about Peppers could’ve been a precursor to a real run at him. Peppers is almost certain to become a free agent, since the Panthers would have to tender him an offer of more than $20 million to franchise him for a second straight year.

The other good news on the pass rusher front is the draft is expected to be stocked with edge players who can bring pressure. The Patriots have four selections in the first two rounds to address those problems and other potential holes, which, because of the barren free agent market, might have to be dealt with in the draft.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at

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