Patriots coach Bill Belichick is facing one of the most important offseasons of his career. He’s coming off a 7-9 season, a rare year with no playoff appearance, and questions up and down the roster, starting at quarterback. Can he make the right moves and return New England to the postseason?
Whether it’s been through the draft, free agency, or the trade market, Belichick has shown a knack for identifying weak spots, turning them into strengths and bouncing back after a stumble the year before. So what sort of blueprint should he follow this time around? Here’s a look at his best roster makeovers, many of which could provide a roadmap for the next few months as the Patriots look to get back to the playoffs.
• Between the 1999 and 2000 seasons:
This one extends beyond simple team building. After an 8-8 finish in 1999, the Patriots fired coach Pete Carroll, were struggling with cap issues, and the front office didn’t have a clear vision for success. There was little optimism that they’d be able to regain the magic that saw them get to the Super Bowl three years prior.
Additions: Head coach Bill Belichick (trade), QB Tom Brady (draft), personnel man Scott Pioli.
The results: In one four-month period at the start of 2000, the Patriots hired Belichick, added Pioli and drafted Brady. It might be the most game-changing stretch in recent league history. But it was a two-year turnaround process; the drafting of Brady was the biggest personnel win for New England before the 2000 season, but in terms of sheer volume, the stretch between the 2000 and 2001 season was memorable as well. Belichick turned over more than half the roster — Richard Seymour and Matt Light were added via the draft, while Belichick found trusted vets like Roman Phifer and Otis Smith, guys who had played for him at previous stops who he knew would help create a solid locker-room infrastructure. It all paid off with a Super Bowl XXXVI win over the Rams.
• Between the 2002 and 2003 seasons:
After winning Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots struggled at times in their quest to repeat, with their run defense serving as an Achilles’ heel: New England yielded an average of 137.4 rushing yards in 2002, second-worst in the NFL. Something had to be done.
Additions: LB Rosevelt Colvin (free agent), S Rodney Harrison (free agent) DL Ted Washington (trade), DL Ty Warren, CB Asante Samuel and OL Dan Koppen (draft). They also released veteran safety Lawyer Milloy prior to the start of the regular season.
The result: One of the more dominant defenses in recent history — the Patriots allowed just 14.9 points per game that year, best in the league — was led in large part by new faces like Harrison and Washington. (Colvin was sidelined for much of the season with a hip injury.) Samuel and Koppen made an immediate impact, and meshed nicely with the established veterans. The Patriots returned to glory, going 14-2 and winning their second Super Bowl in three seasons.
• Between the 2003 and 2004 seasons:
Washington departed as a free agent after one season in New England, which left a distinct lack of size along the defensive line. Meanwhile, the running game was certainly adequate with Antowain Smith, but could use a between-the-tackles boost. If the Patriots were going to go back-to-back, they would need some upgrades.
Additions: DL Vince Wilfork and TE Benjamin Watson (draft), RB Corey Dillon (trade).
The result: There was no sense of complacency this time around, as Wilfork became a foundational element for the franchise for the next decade. Watson (after sitting out the bulk of the 2004 season) would go on to become an excellent complementary player for the offense, catching 80 passes in his first two-plus seasons in New England. Dillon powered the New England ground game with 1,635 rushing yards during the 2004 regular season, a franchise record. The Patriots went on to win their second straight Super Bowl and third in four years.
• Between the 2006 and 2007 seasons:
The 2006 Patriots came within one possession of making Super Bowl XLI, despite the fact that the passing game was middle-of-the-road, averaging 212.5 passing yards per game (12th in the NFL). Only one receiver (Reche Caldwell) had 60 or more catches, as stopgaps like Doug Gabriel, Chad Jackson, and Jabar Gaffney struggled to find consistency in the passing game. As the offseason began, the mandate was clear — find some help in the passing game for Brady.
Additions: Wide receivers Randy Moss (trade), Wes Welker (trade) and Donte Stallworth (free agent); linebacker Adalius Thomas (free agent).
The result: The Patriots’ 2007 offense was one of the best in league history, as New England went from averaging 24.1 points per game in 2006 to 36.8 in 2007. Welker (112 receptions), Moss (98 receptions, 23 touchdowns), and Stallworth (46 receptions) helped reshape the New England passing game, while the versatile Thomas had 6.5 sacks and 79 tackles, both second-best on the team. New England finished 18-1, losing to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, but this offseason might have been our favorite.
• Between the 2009 and 2010 seasons:
The 2009 campaign was one of the most difficult of Belichick’s career, as New England went 10-6 and lost in the wild-card round. At that point, the Patriots were five years removed from their last Super Bowl win, with many of the key players of the first dynasty retired or otherwise gone. Despite Brady’s continued success — a year removed from his knee injury — it was perceived by some across the league that the Patriots were no longer what they once were.
Additions: DB Devin McCourty, TE Rob Gronkowski, TE Aaron Hernandez (draft), TE Alge Crumpler (free agent). They also released Shawn Springs and Adalius Thomas.
The result: The addition of one of the best draft classes in franchise history — that included linebacker Brandon Spikes — helped jump-start the Patriots on both sides of the ball. Gronkowski and Hernandez were almost impossible to stop, while McCourty reached the Pro Bowl as a cornerback in his first year in the league. The veteran influence of respected new faces like Crumpler provided a steadying influence in the locker room. The Patriots went from 10-6 to 14-2, and while they lost to the Jets in the divisional round, that season was the first step in the creation of the second stage of the New England dynasty.
• Between the 2013 and 2014 seasons:
The 2013 Patriots were a final four team, one that saw the season come to a close in the AFC title game against the Broncos. While it wasn’t the only issue with the New England roster, it wasn’t completely coincidental that cornerback Aqib Talib had been knocked out of back-to-back conference championship games, exposing a lack of depth in the secondary against AFC powerhouses like Baltimore and Denver. How could the Patriots shore up their pass defense and add some offensive depth at the same time?
Additions: WR Brandon LaFell, CBs Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner (free agents), QB Jimmy Garoppolo and RB James White (draft). CB Malcolm Butler (undrafted free agent)
The result: Signed as a free agent after the Bucs released him, the signing of Revis would be a masterstroke. Revis and Browner helped create ripple effects in the secondary that allowed defenders like Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan to settle into complementary roles, while Butler would go on to make one of the most important plays in Super Bowl history. Meanwhile, Garoppolo gave the Patriots a solid backup, one who certainly showed his worth in 2016 when he was thrust briefly into a starters’ role. White would eventually become one of the most dynamic offensive options on the roster. New England closed out the 2014 season in style with a win over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.
Christopher Price can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at cpriceglobe.