INDIANAPOLIS — Disappointing postseason losses often lead to change for the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick.
The 2006 AFC Championship game loss to the Indianapolis Colts brought the record-breaking outside/inside duo of Randy Moss and Wes Welker.
The 10-6 record and home-field blowout playoff loss to the Ravens in 2009 turned into Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and later a trade out of town for Moss.
The second Super Bowl loss to the Giants in 2011 prodded Belichick to trade up for a pass rusher (Chandler Jones) and go defense with his first six picks.
What will the stunning and disappointing AFC Championship game loss to the Ravens this past season bring about this time?
If you combine the amount of time Belichick and the coaches analyzed the loss to the Ravens — and sources said they grinded away at it — and the $8 million freed up from quarterback Tom Brady’s contract extension, this could be a crazy offseason for the Patriots.
What makes this offseason more unpredictable than most (outside of the post-lockout mad rush in 2011), is that the NFL calendar has shifted.
As recently as 2010, franchise tags had to be issued by the second day of the scouting combine. That meant the free agent field was basically set during that tampering extravaganza. And since free agency started three days after the combine, many deals were locked in and you could gauge who was going to land where.
That is proving much more difficult, if not impossible, this year. The combine ends Tuesday. The deadline to issue the franchise tag is six days later. A three-day legal tampering period starts March 9, with free agency commencing March 12. The spacing out of the calendar is causing teams to delay getting serious with free agents because the players’ agents will just shop the offers elsewhere.
So sketching out the Patriots’ offseason plan, especially in regard to free agency, is nearly impossible. The Patriots will regroup after the combine, cull the information acquired there, and finalize their offseason plan.
But after talking to several league and team sources, we were able to glean a rough outline, which certainly could change given the volatility in this year’s market. The flat cap is expected to cause a flood of veteran free agents, and that will suppress the market at some positions. If you have cap space — the Patriots are in good shape at $23 million after the Brady extension — you could be golden.
The biggest key to the offseason puzzle is that the Patriots are not expected to use the franchise tag on their three key free agents — receiver Wes Welker, cornerback Aqib Talib, and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
But there is optimism that Welker and Talib will return, with Welker having the best chance. Don’t be surprised if Welker signs a contract extension, which Brady probably vouched for with his new deal, in short order before free agency. The Patriots don’t want him going to an AFC rival (Dolphins, Broncos, Texans) and pushing that team over the top, while the Patriots are left scrambling with unknown quantities.
The Patriots are one of several NFL teams discussing the possibility of using the transition tag this year instead of the franchise tag. The transition tag is cheaper, but instead of receiving two first-round picks in return for another team signing a franchise player, a team only gets right of refusal and no compensation with the transition.
Talib could be in line for that. It would save the team $1.729 million against the franchise tag.
Here’s a position-by-position look at the offseason landscape:
Brady’s extension became apparent this week, but it’s amazing it came together this quickly. It’s a testament to his team-first attitude. It also means it’s not a matter of if, but when the Patriots trade backup Ryan Mallett. They are open to moving him. You’d figure this would be a perfect time, in a weak quarterback draft. But that could prove troublesome since the film available on Mallett from the 2012 preseason is mediocre at best. And the Patriots, after spending a third-round pick and two years of development on Mallett, are expecting something in return. What the Patriots should do (in a likely pipe-dream scenario) — after all the college pro days and after every team has watched the quarterback prospects work out — is allow Mallett to have his own workout. With such an average quarterback class, teams could be blown away by Mallett — who has quickened and tightened his motion — in a private setting and fork over the kind of package the Patriots are looking for.
The Patriots like what they have, with Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden in the power back role. Danny Woodhead will hit the free agent market. The team has seen enough flashes from Shane Vereen to believe he can handle that third-down role. Woodhead could return — the Patriots love his playmaking ability — depending on the market for him. The Patriots also have Jeff Demps coming back, so it’s a crowded spot.
There is a good deal of optimism on both sides that a three-year Welker extension will get done, but anything can happen. Odds are against Brandon Lloyd’s $3 million option bonus being picked up. There is still a lot of internal debate about what to do considering the Patriots literally couldn’t line up tomorrow at receiver. Lloyd’s erratic behavior in the locker room and on the practice field proved tiresome, according to a league and team source. If they cut Lloyd, that would save the Patriots $4.9 million against the cap this season, though there will be $2 million in dead money that can be spread out over two years. The team was smart to build in protection with Lloyd.
How the Patriots address the X (outside) receiver position will be closely watched. They are expected to be active in free agency and the draft, though the targets are unknown. The second round is where they more likely will go for a receiver. Another option, if Welker returns, is to move Hernandez to the X, let Welker and Rob Gronkowski rule the middle of the field, and perhaps put money into the Z (quicker perimeter) position to get a strong short-area playmaker such as Percy Harvin (in a trade with Vikings) or Danny Amendola (Rams free agent). Julian Edelman should return to Z but with his injury history, he can’t be relied upon to man that position himself. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui is a restricted free agent but his original round tender of $1.323 million seems way too high. If the team doesn’t tender him but re-signs him, his base salary would be $630,000.
Things have been very quiet on the Vollmer front. So either the Patriots are going to issue a surprise franchise/transition tag, or he’s likely gone. Vollmer is expected to hit the market and sign elsewhere, though the market is unpredictable at this point so a return can’t be ruled out. The Patriots have the utmost confidence that Marcus Cannon can take over at right tackle. The problem with letting Vollmer go: Who is the swing tackle who can fill in on the left side should Nate Solder get injured? That person is not on the roster at this point. Kyle Hix and Markus Zusevics are unknowns. After some discussion about whom to keep, Dan Connolly or free agent Donald Thomas for right guard, the Patriots appear set with Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Connolly, and Cannon. Thomas wants and should get a chance to start elsewhere. Connolly’s string of injuries along with the ascension of Wendell has taken some of the bloom off Connolly’s value.
This could be an interesting position. Expect the Patriots to show some interest in former Colts end Dwight Freeney, but the Falcons are believed to be the leaders for his services. The Patriots would like to find a viable third end to mix in with Jones and Rob Ninkovich, who is entering the final year of his deal. The Patriots have hope for CFL imports Armond Armstead and Jason Vega, but they aren’t being counted on considering the jump in competition. Trevor Scott will see what the market brings. Vince Wilfork’s cap numbers ($10.6 million, $11.6 million) don’t scream extension, but he’s obviously deserving. The Patriots’ No. 1 priority in free agency last year was a strong tackle with push-the-pocket ability — they wanted Red Bryant, who re-signed with the Seahawks, and Jonathan Fanene never worked out — and they never got that player, so they will probably find one in a tackle-deep draft.
The Patriots seem to be OK with Dane Fletcher as the cover linebacker on the roster. They’re more on the lookout for veterans who can provide an upgrade on special teams. Brandon Spikes is entering a contract year, but it doesn’t appear that an extension is in the offing.
As it stands, the Patriots are planning to go with Devin McCourty and Tavon Wilson as the starting safeties and they have a strong belief in the duo. The team has confidence that Wilson progressed enough last season, and will take the expected leap to Year 2. However, it can’t be discounted that the team really has other plans at safety — league sources believe the Patriots will try for Ed Reed of the Ravens at about $5 million per season. Packers free agent Charles Woodson doesn’t seem to be a fit for what the Patriots want to do, but those who know him think he would play at value money. A return by free agent Patrick Chung would be shocking. The team liked what Talib brought last season at cornerback and would like him back, but character and injury concerns probably will limit how far they want to go, so the transition tag could make sense. The cornerback market will be unpredictable because there aren’t any elite players available, only good ones.
Someone could jump on Talib and there’s a strong belief he’ll take the highest offer, even if it’s not much more than the Patriots’. One more area of caution with Talib: he possesses a pied-piper charisma that endears himself to younger players on the team, similar to Moss. Do the Patriots really want that long-term? The team has no idea what’s going to happen with Alfonzo Dennard’s sentencing, but most believe he’ll be with the team for most, if not all of training camp. Kyle Arrington likely will go to the market because he wants to be paid as a starting cornerback. Although the Patriots think he’s a solid player, it’s a stretch to think they’re going to want to pay him as a starter when they view him as a No. 3 with good special teams ability. Expect the Patriots to take one or two cornerbacks in the draft, including a possible first-round selection.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski is safe, despite his high cap number ($3.4 million) and average performance in clutch situations. It will be interesting, however, to see if the team brings in legitimate competition for him this year to set off a camp battle. Zoltan Mesko needs to take the next step in a contract year and be one of the better punters in the league. He underachieved last season.Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.