Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Reloading The Musket - Part 1: "We're On To 2015...."

If screenwriters in Hollywood were to write a football script about an epic comeback in the World Championship game, we'd expect a lot of non-essential and gratuitous swings of momentum, along with a cornucopia full of corny catch phrases and plenty of cliff hanging drama...

Belichick's field of dreams is in the past, now he's on to 2015...
Nothing better than watching human drama unfold, and Hollywood has known this for a long, long time - sports films are all about it, from classic re-enactments of the so-called "Miracle on Ice" and the friendship between Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo in "Brian's Song" to the fictional intensity of the Rocky series have captivated sports' fans for decades.

But when real-life drama unfolds on one of the largest stages on the planet, in front of hundreds of millions of television viewers world-wide and with the small town underdog ending up the shocking the unsuspecting audience by making perhaps the most clutch play in the Game's forty-nine year history, it's better than all of the Rocky fights put together.

And that's quite a feat, as the Rocky franchise has left it's brand on the world of sports for all the right reasons, which makes what the New England Patriots managed to pull out of their hoodies in Super Bowl XLIX all that more remarkable, though the two entities took decidedly different paths.

Rocky was the underdog, and loved by millions; the Patriots, universally despised, yet still with their legions of fans - both the unwavering and bandwagon-hopping alike.  New England has dominated the world of professional football since the turn of the century by employing the tried and true business sense of Robert Kraft with Belichick's insistence on treating the 53rd player on the roster the same as the franchise quarterback...

Kraft's business savvy has helped keep the team relevant
...and that 53rd player one week isn't necessarily the 53rd player for the next, as Belichick manipulates the roster to fit his weekly gameplan, and once that week's game is over, that game plan goes into the round file and a new one starts to take shape almost immediately.

Because that's the climate that Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft have built together in Foxborough - when they're done with one task, they're on to something else.  In week four they were trounced by the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football, but all Belichick would say about it is "We're on to Cincinnati,", their next opponent.

When the Patriots won the AFC Championship game, Belichick uttered the same now-iconic slogan, but this time they were on to Seattle and the Super Bowl - and now that the goal for the season has been accomplished, interviews given, trucks awarded, they are on to 2015, and just like it is with every game, what has happened in the past has no bearing on the task at hand...

...which, of course, is building a team for 2015 that has the opportunity to successfully defend that now-past tense title.  It's not easy, it never is and Belichick has never claimed that it was, but he makes it seem so from a fan perspective.

And fifteen years of that influence has changed the culture in Foxborough.  No longer do the fans hope for a good season, nor do they dream of the playoffs - they expect those things to happen because , truly, there have not been a nation of football fans that have been exposed to such a protracted string of excellence as Patriots' fans.

Young adults entering the workforce do not have a cognitive memory of the Patriots being anything but championship caliber.  Think about that for a second.  It takes the memory of fans entering their 30's to be able to recant with any clarity what it was like when the Patriots were so bad that nobody bothered to hate on them.

So it's them.  The Patriots franchise has built a football culture where winning is just about everything, but not at any cost - which is important to remember, especially when considering the team building process.

Up until last offseason, the Patriots had been fiscally conservative in free agency, signing only players that made sense on both a conceptual and financial level, the marriage of which has been the base of a philosophy that has kept New England a title contender for the past decade and a half - but then a rare free agency binge (or at least a binge in the Patriots' sense of the word), as they signed cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to what amounted to mercenary contracts.

Granted, there is a fourth Super Bowl trophy in one of those Zordon-esque tubes in the Hall at Patriots' Place in part because of them - and we'll never know if it would have happen without them, but history suggests that Belichick would have had his Patriots deep into January and making a push for February.

But that's not good enough in Patriots' Nation.

Trophies are the only things that make the nut in New England, and there is no tolerance for excuses or failure - but in varying from their tried and true business philosophy, the Patriots have put themselves in a precarious spot this offseason as Revis bolted for the Jets and running back Shane Vereen took his stated "Step up" from New England by signing with the Giants...

...Browner and Wilfork were systematically shown the door so that the salary cap-strapped Patriots could turn their attrition to gain just enough cap space to add some bit players while saving enough to sign their draft picks.

And that's it.  Most likely, they are done making moves in free agency and have turned their focus to the draft, where they will attempt to repair the damage done by straying from their philosophy, and if they play their cards right, the draft is deep in need areas for New England.

Because of the aforementioned attrition, the defensive line and cornerback positions have been deemed priorities in the 2015 NFL Draft, with offensive guard and coverage linebacker coming in a close second as the team moves on from their lone attempt at buying a title and getting back to the philosophy that builds a team using the rookie salary cap as a tool to keep their overall salary cap in a manageable state.

Already with the youngest team ever to win a Super Bowl, the Patriots are set to get even younger and all with an eye to the future as this upcoming draft may be the most important in the tenure of Bill Belichick in terms of stocking the team for the eventuality that comes with expiring contracts at key positions in 2016, including staples such as left tackle Nate Solder, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive end Chandler Jones.

Just those three names will put a heavy burden on the 2016 cap but, fortunately, the cap may be higher by about ten percent when that league year starts, which would just about make those contacts a given to remain in Foxborough - regardless, the draft is upcoming and with the unpredictable Belichick calling the shots, we're sure to have a few head scratchers...

In the following parts to this series, we will look at every position on the depth chart for New England, assess the needs at the positions and offer up suggestion as to which college players would fit the Patriot Way, and make an impact as a rookie - all while methodically building a big board leading up to next month's draft...

Next: Part II looks at the running back position and what impact the draft might have on the backfield.

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