Editor's Note: For the first time since the 2010 offseason, the Patriots are looking at a "full" offseason, without a trip at least as far as the AFC Championship Game. Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry are detailing the challenges facing the team going forward. Read Tom's column here and click here to listen to the latest episode of Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast.
The football-watching world was bombarded with this particular nugget not long after the Titans scampered off the field at Gillette Stadium having moved onto the Divisional Round: It was the first time the Patriots had been eliminated as early as the Wild Card Round since 2009.
It's a remarkable note, highlighting just how dominant this decade of football has been in New England. It also serves as a window into the franchise's history and therefore could be instructive as we try to determine how exactly the Patriots will try to bounce back as they did a decade ago.
Two seasons after the Patriots lost that Wild Card game to Baltimore, they were back in the Super Bowl. And that Super Bowl run set off a stretch of eight consecutive seasons when Bill Belichick's team made it at least as far as the AFC Championship Game.
Looking back at how the Patriots rebounded from that particular early playoff exit in 2009, though quick, it clearly wasn't easy. Given the way the current roster is constructed, this particular bounce-back could be even more challenging.
WHY THE PRESSURE'S ON
There is no precise formula, of course, when it comes to building a consistent championship contender. But there is no doubt that for many years, each spring, the Patriots were able to replenish their team with key pieces brought aboard from the college ranks who helped set up the team for long-term success.
That 2009 iteration of the Patriots featured a roster in transition. Pillars of the organization — Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison — had moved on prior to the season. But there were young players, acquired in the draft, starting to assert themselves as serious contributors and leaders in their own right. And with each draft, the number of those young core players grew.
By the time the Patriots were back in the Super Bowl in 2011, they had young talents who'd been developed at One Patriot Place serving as foundational pieces, including 2008 picks Jerod Mayo and Matthew Slater, 2009 selections Sebastian Vollmer, Patrick Chung and Julian Edelman, and 2010 home-run picks Devin McCourty and Rob Gronkowski. Even the rookie class of 2011 had a say in the team getting to Super Bowl XLIV with first-round pick Nate Solder starting 13 games on the offensive line.
Despite going on an unprecedented run of AFC Championship Games and Super Bowl appearances — meaning Bill Belichick was generally picking near the bottom of the first round — the Patriots continued to draft well to keep their annual championship aspirations alive. Shane Vereen and Marcus Cannon, from Solder's class, ended up playing important roles in championships. Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones were bullseyes in the 2012 first round. Without a first-rounder in 2013, the Patriots still landed Jamie Collins, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan, who all contributed to title runs. In 2014, taken in the fourth round, James White ended up a key piece to the team's future.
Since then, the steady stream of cornerstone pieces arriving in the draft has slowed.
The Patriots hit on both Trey Flowers and Shaq Mason in the fourth round of the 2015 draft, but only Mason remains on the team. The 2016 class, which saw a first-rounder wiped away due to Deflategate, is no longer represented on the Patriots roster as Joe Thuney and others are set to hit free agency. The 2017 draft class featured just four players and didn't produce a consistent starter.
Using a draft-in-bulk approach in 2018, with nine players selected, the Patriots landed Isaiah Wynn in the first round. He looks like a quality left tackle, but he's missed three-quarters of his first two seasons due to injury. Sony Michel and Ja'Whaun Bentley are the other contributors remaining from that class. The effectiveness of the 2019 draft class is largely to be determined.
Compare that young nucleus built to help the Patriots rebound after 2009 to this one. The 2008-11 draft classes accounted for four Pro Bowls, three first-team All-Pros and two second-team All-Pros through the 2011 season. The 2015-2018 classes did not account for any such honors through the 2018 season. Thuney was named a second-team All-Pro for his 2019 performance.
Even just looking at the roster without tallying up awards, the number of recently-drafted Patriots who've become core pieces and stuck is eye-opening. The team has a greater number of starting-caliber players under contract from the 2009 draft class (Chung and Edelman) than they do from the 2015 (Mason), 2016 and 2017 classes combined.
Belichick and his front-office staff have seemingly willingly gone with an older roster in recent years, perhaps in an effort to capitalize on their championship window as Brady neared the end of his career. Still, that approach — unafraid to trade picks or execute pick-swap deals for proven veterans — meant a smaller investment in rookie contracts than most other teams.
In 2018, according to OverTheCap.com, only one team had fewer cap dollars committed to players on rookie contracts than the Patriots. That year, only two teams had a lower percentage of their active roster devoted to players on rookie deals (33 players). It worked out, clearly. They won a Super Bowl.
Last year, it was more of the same in terms of their rookie-contract investment. They entered the regular season with the oldest 53-man roster in football and got out to a record-setting pace with the oldest starting defense in the NFL. No team in the league had fewer players on rookie contracts (24) and no team committed fewer dollars to rookie deals.
Even with veterans such as Tom Brady, Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins not currently counting against the 2020 roster, the Patriots are still slated to be a decidedly veteran team next season. No team has fewer players on rookie contracts at the moment (28), and no roster has a smaller percentage of players on rookie contracts making up their roster (52.8 percent). The next closest team in terms of the percentage of rostered players on rookie deals is the Saints (60.4 percent).
The draft has breathed life into the Patriots dynasty for the better part of the past two decades. Building successful teams without drafted-and-developed contributors is possible — that 2018 roster is a good example of how a couple of low-yield draft classes doesn't have to extinguish a team's title hopes — and college players may be more difficult to successfully evaluate than ever before. But without a greater number of cost-effective impact additions from the drafted ranks, the next Patriots reboot could be Belichick's toughest yet.
As one NFL executive familiar with the situation put it last offseason, leaning on free-agent signings and pick-for-player trades isn't the most sustainable plan of attack. If the Patriots don't start to make more of their draft-day dice rolls, they could find themselves in a real roster-building quagmire relatively quickly.
WHY THERE'S REASON FOR REBOOT OPTIMISM
Some of those roster-composition figures for the 2020 season can change. And fast.
The Patriots traded this year's second-round pick to the Falcons for Mohamed Sanu, but they still have one first-rounder, three thirds (including two projected compensatory picks), a fourth, four sixths (two compensatory picks) and three sevenths. That's a dozen selections to try to add to the nine players remaining on the roster from the 2019 draft class to try to jump-start a youth movement.
And it's not as though they need each of those picks to hit in order for a wave of young talent to land this fall. In 2010, the Patriots had more established talent on the offensive side of the ball than they do at the moment — Brady was at an MVP level, Wes Welker was one of the best receivers in the league, and the offensive line was loaded with Pro Bowl-caliber players — but adding Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at tight end took them to another level.
A hit or two, combined with better health throughout the course of the season, could have the Patriots looking like a different offense after 2019 was one of their least-efficient seasons on that side of the ball in years.
Plus, there's the "redshirt" factor. Belichick has openly discussed how players coming off of quiet rookie seasons can turn into critical parts. There's no shortage of those types on the roster who — either because of injury or because they were blocked by veterans ahead of them on the depth chart — have untapped potential.
Outside of rookie punter Jake Bailey, who quickly established himself as one of the best at his position in 2019, most of that class has a chance to take the Year 2 leap in 2020.
N'Keal Harry, Joejuan Williams, Damien Harris, Chase Winovich and Byron Cowart all got their feet wet with some game action and plenty of practice reps. Harry, who missed half the season due to injury, could benefit immensely from more time on the fields behind Gillette Stadium. Likewise, offensive linemen Yodny Cajuste and Hjalte Froholdt — both of whom missed the season with injuries — will have a chance to earn roles this offseason.
Another point in New England's favor as it searches to reload on young talent: It has seen some of its best players come from the undrafted free agent ranks.
They've found gems in David Andrews (2015), Jonathan Jones (2016), Adam Butler (2017) and J.C. Jackson (2018) to provide the team with some of its best young talent. By their nature, undrafted rookies are gambles. But they're low-cost gambles, and another double-digit undrafted free agent class could yield a player or two upon whom the Patriots could rely. That's been their history.
WHY THE QUARTERBACK DOMINO DETERMINES THE COURSE
How the Patriots handle 2020 could end up looking like 2010: Add a handful of capable young draft picks to a roster with established talent and a few promising young pros, and continue to build around Tom Brady.
But is there any chance that the reboot Belichick directed in 2000 and 2001 ends up being the closer comparison? Might he make a change at the game's most important position, roll with a more cost-effective option there, and rely on a veteran-laden defense while reshaping the team to his liking?
The current iteration of the roster is unique. It's a different team and a different time. Neither 2001 nor 2010 provides perfect blueprints on how to approach this offseason. The quarterback decision, though, could dictate which way Belichick proceeds.
If Brady ends up back in New England at a dollar figure that pays him near the top-third of quarterbacks in the NFL, then that could make it difficult to surround him with the veteran talent that would likely best accentuate his skill set. Would surrounding Brady with young players for a second consecutive season get the best out of the 43-year-old? And would that be in line with Belichick's credo of "what's best for the football team?"
If Brady ends up back in New England at a lower dollar figure that would allow him to be surrounded by a free-agent signing or two who'd make him more comfortable — perhaps trading picks for established veterans as well — that might be "what's best for the football team" in 2020.
But what about the seasons beyond? If there is an inevitable reboot afoot, would signing Brady to that type of deal simply postpone an inevitable roster reconstruction? And might it complicate the process with cap hits pushed down the road to be dealt with in later years?
If Brady ends up elsewhere, giving way to either second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham or a low-cost veteran, there will be growing pains. Still, in theory, it would provide the team with more roster and salary-cap flexibility. As it stands right now, thanks in part to pacts signed with Antonio Brown and Michael Bennett, only three teams have more dead money on their 2020 books than the Patriots, per OverTheCap.com.
Should Brady find himself in a different uniform next season, that dead-money number will jump another $13.5 million. Re-signing Brady prior to the start of the league year will avoid that kind of cap-hit acceleration — only $6.75M hits the cap — but depending on a new deal's structure, that decision may simply postpone the inevitable.
Even Belichick would acknowledge, whatever happens with Brady isn't entirely up to him. Any contract negotiation is a two-way street, as he put it in his year-end press conference. But it'd behoove the Patriots to have an idea of how they'd like to proceed with Brady as soon as possible. That way, they could use the legal tampering period in mid-March to surround Brady with veteran pieces if he's going to be back. If not, they could sit tight, save — they're in the middle of the pack of the NFL in terms of cap space — and hope they can thrive despite undergoing a roster renaissance.
Either way, the contributions they receive from their most recent draft classes will matter. The Patriots couldn't reboot when Belichick arrived in the early aughts without quality drafts. The same was true 10 years ago after an unceremonious Wild Card Round exit.
Compared to other seasons this decade — when they've made it at least as far as the AFC Championship Game — they have a few weeks more time to prepare for draft weekend. They have ammo. They just need to hit.