- Mike Reiss, ESPN New England Patriots reporter
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Bill Belichick said Monday that a thorough evaluation period will take place as part of building the Patriots for the 2010 season.
One area that figures to receive considerable attention is the idea of setting a new tone in the locker room. Often overlooked, the locker room dynamic can play a large part in a team's success, and the Patriots didn't seem to have the right mix in 2009.
As for some of the specific issues that Belichick and his staff figure to address, here is one opinion of what the priorities should be:
Tom Brady's contract situation. Brady enters the final year of his contract in 2010 and it's difficult to imagine the Patriots being aggressive elsewhere in the market without Brady's situation close to being resolved, especially given the resources it will take to lock him up. In the past, Brady's deal has been extended with two years remaining, but the sides broke away from that this season. If a deal isn't in place by training camp or the start of the 2010 season, that could be viewed as a troubling sign regarding the financial health of the franchise. One also wonders how that would sit with Brady, who is scheduled to make $3.5 million, which is well below market value for a player of his caliber. As the Patriots shape their roster heading into the next decade, a lucrative extension for Brady -- even coming off a season in which he uncharacteristically made mistakes at critical times and was physically battered to the point that the velocity of his passes dipped late in the season -- seems like the obvious starting point. The first piece for any successful team is a quarterback to build around, and Brady, at 32, is still a centerpiece type of talent.
Vince Wilfork and toughness on defense. Belichick made the point Monday that now is not the time to make snap judgments, and taking some time away and looking at the full body of work is a smarter approach. That's probably a good thing for Wilfork, who was tossed aside on the game's first offensive play Sunday, an 83-yard touchdown run by Ray Rice, as the Ravens rung up an astounding 234 rushing yards. It was stunning to see a Belichick-coached defense pushed around the field like that; one given over the years has been the ability of the New England defense to play fundamentally sound against the run and be physically tough. Sunday aside, Wilfork has developed into a top talent and has done seemingly everything asked of him while handling himself with class. One would have thought the sides could have reached a long-term agreement by this point. If the Patriots place the franchise tag on Wilfork, this figures to get contentious and Wilfork will have plenty of support in the locker room among his peers after a season in which the divide between players and management was highlighted by the Richard Seymour trade, a move that rocked some players. Wilfork represents more of what the Patriots need: physical toughness in the front seven.
Tully Banta-Cain and the pass rush. One area that hurt the Patriots for much of the season was the defense's inability to generate a rush with the standard four rushers. That led them to blitz more than 40 percent of the time. Banta-Cain emerged as their best pass-rusher, with 10 sacks, and his one-year contract now expires. The sides had reached a tentative agreement on an extension through 2011, but something happened before the deal was signed and now there is a chance Banta-Cain could be elsewhere in 2010 and beyond. Even if Banta-Cain is back, he probably fits best as a sub rusher more than an every-down player forced to set the edge against the run, which is what he had become this year. Overall, boosting the pass rush figures to be a top priority, and the team's top draft picks -- one in the first round and three in the second -- should help.
Depth at receiver and a possible shift in offensive scheme. One line of thinking entering the season was that the Patriots' offense, with Brady returning, would be so explosive that it would help cover up some of the growing pains of a defense in transition. It seemed like the Patriots were trying to run an offense similar to the one they ran in 2007, but their personnel (including Brady) wasn't as explosive, and that ended up hurting them. The Patriots were in three- or four-receiver sets about 55 percent of the time this season, but one of the big issues was the weaponry behind the top two receivers, Randy Moss and Wes Welker. This is where the free-agent misevaluation of Joey Galloway, a projected No. 3 in the preseason, hurt the Patriots. Veteran Sam Aiken is more of a No. 4 or 5 receiver; rookie Julian Edelman showed promise but he battled a forearm injury that stunted his development. To rely so heavily on this type of offense in the future, more explosiveness and depth at receiver is needed, as is a commitment to Moss, who enters the final year of his deal ($6.4 million). Otherwise, perhaps a change in scheme and identity -- with a greater emphasis on the running game -- is warranted.
Input from veteran voices and innovative thinkers on the coaching staff. Belichick's ability to groom young coaches has been impressive over the years. It's been said that he usually prefers a young coach he can teach his system to over an older coach who might have predetermined ways of doing things. That's what made the 2008 hire of veteran special assistant Dom Capers so interesting, as it was outside of the box for Belichick and a chance to possibly create fusion between Belichick's schemes and those of a respected coach like Capers. That never quite came to fruition, however, and this year Belichick had one of the youngest coaching staffs of his tenure. At times, the offense looked stagnant and adjustments weren't always made. On Monday, Belichick was asked if he has enough coaches around him who are willing to challenge him, which is healthy on any staff. He didn't directly answer the question, but his response made one think he was at least considering the possibility of some coaching changes.
The future of Adalius Thomas. The numbers indicate that Thomas' time in New England is coming to an end. Thomas played in about 54 percent of the team's defensive snaps this season -- he was a part-time player coming off the field on obvious passing situations -- and he is scheduled to earn $4.9 million in 2010. From a management perspective, the playing time, production and salary don't fit together. In retrospect, a player like Mike Vrabel would have given similar bang for the buck in a two-down role against the run, while providing more leadership in the locker room. The fallout from Thomas' deal is that the Patriots are unlikely to swim in those rich free-agent waters again.
Laurence Maroney and the possible addition of fresh legs at running back. Maroney made it through his first NFL season without injury, and there was a stretch before his three fumbles in which he was as reliable as any skill position player on offense. Yet for a Patriots staff that values consistency, the question will be asked: Is Maroney, still young at 24, mentally tough enough to be someone to build the running game around? If the answer is no, it's time to target some fresh legs in the running game, while also considering the futures of veteran backs Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris, who enter the last year of their contracts.
Matt Light and the offensive line. Starting left tackle Light enters the final year of his contract and is scheduled to make $4.5 million, a high figure that could have the personnel and coaching staffs strongly considering the possibility of turning the position over to Sebastian Vollmer, who was one of the bright spots this season and is on the uptick. Meanwhile, starting right guard Stephen Neal is considering retirement and center Dan Koppen doesn't look like the Pro Bowl center he was in 2007. At times, the line looked old and beaten up in 2009, and the 18 sacks allowed was a bit deceiving because of how quickly Brady got rid of the ball to avoid getting hit. Left guard Logan Mankins, who would be a restricted free agent in an uncapped year, is a stud who should be part of the team's long-term plans.
Re-signing top cornerback Leigh Bodden. After a 2008 season in which the Patriots struggled with Deltha O'Neal and Ellis Hobbs as their top corners, there was significant improvement in 2009. Bodden was a main reason why. The veteran corner led the team with 17 passes defended and played 82 percent of the snaps (third highest among defenders), a total which would have been higher had he not been rested in the season finale. Bodden is a solid No. 2 corner; the question will be if the sides can find a middle ground on a multiyear deal. He played this year on a one-year, $2.25 million contract.
Always a place for Kevin Faulk. As the veteran Faulk showed in the playoff loss to the Ravens, he still has some juice left in those 33-year-old legs. Faulk played more than any other Patriots running back (38 percent of the snaps) and is a respected voice in the locker room, a leader by example. Faulk is scheduled to be a free agent and he figures to be on the priority list to return.
Ten priorities as the Patriots formulate their offseason plans.