The Patriots are in a hole. This is not a surprise.
A post-Tom Brady dip was inevitable, especially since the post-Brady succession plan consisted of Jarrett Stidham and ... and ... and ... umm ... CAM NEWTON!
That the team’s most important player was signed as an afterthought in late June and is now the human flotation device for the 2020 season is just odd. It makes you wonder about the planning then and – call it blasphemy if you want – the planning and execution of Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio going forward.
Still, the general feeling is that a sub-.500 Patriots team with Belichick running the show will be a temporary thing. They’ll start climbing out of this hole because that’s what Bill does. They’ll be out of cap jail, players will come back from the opt-outs – BAM! – they’re back.
But what if they aren’t?
When you examine the Patriots roster and realize how old their key players are, it’s hard to tell whether or not they’ve even begun the process of turning over the soil.
Most of their best players are nearing the ends of their contracts and/or their careers.
These are some of the players who have contracts expiring in March: Joe Thuney (31), Cam Newton (32), David Andrews (29), Rex Burkhead (31), James White (29), Lawrence Guy (31), Jason McCourty (34), John Simon (31), Deatrich Wise (27) and Adam Butler (27). J.C. Jackson will be a restricted free agent.
Up in 2022 are Stephon Gilmore (31), Devin McCourty (34), Dont'a Hightower (32), Julian Edelman (35), Isaiah Wynn (25) and Sony Michel (26). Patrick Chung is 33 and signed through 2024.
I mean, that’s pretty much everybody, right?
Some of those players will be retained. But who are the “next men up” for the players who retire or sign someplace else? Ideally, a bunch of homegrown, drafted players would roll off the lips.
I can’t come up with a bunch. I can give you Damien Harris and Michael Onwenu. Maybe Justin Herron. Kyle Dugger. Byron Cowart? Chase Winovich? Jakobi Meyers? Josh Uche? Anfernee Jennings? Joejuan Williams?
There are more questions than answers among those players and – notably absent on that list – is the quarterback remedy.
The point is that the Patriots already have depth and talent issues all over their roster. And once this season ends, they’ll be confronted with decisions on players who are still getting it done but are close to the end.
Do they keep on with older players who are past their peaks but still dependable?
Do they rip off the Band-Aid – as Brady did for them last March – and deal with the short-term pain that will cause?
The team projects to have abunnnnnnddddannnntttt salary cap space when the league year begins on St. Patrick’s Day 2021 (aka: Brady Evacuation Day). The projected $61M against the projected $176M cap signals them being able to go hog wild in free agency.
And it should be a bumper crop of free agents since 11 teams are already over the cap and are going to have to heave players overboard just to get right.
It’s another COVID-19 side effect and Belichick – somewhat surprisingly – acknowledged earlier this month that the squirreled-away cap space is on his mind.
So Belichick is indeed eyeballing what we all figured he was eyeballing. A chance to clean up in free agency next spring.
The Patriots have rebuilt before under Belichick.
The Patriots had to execute a down-to-the-studs teardown/rebuild from 2008 through 2010 but – because they went 11-5, 10-6 and 14-2 during those seasons – it’s not generally viewed for being the complete roster renovation that it was.
Because they had Brady, Wes Welker, Kevin Faulk and so many pieces on the offensive line, the point-scoring didn’t really slip. And then they started drafting the next pieces – Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez (briefly) and Nate Solder while hitting on other teams’ castoffs (Danny Woodhead, BenJarvus Green-Ellis).
Meanwhile, the defensive pieces they drafted and brought in around the anchor of Vince Wilfork – Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Arrington – were doubles, triples and home runs.
As always, the coaching was unparalleled. And that made for a reboot that went almost undetected.
Now? This one isn’t escaping anyone’s attention. The Patriots are nowhere close to where they were in 2008-2009 mainly because they are so far off at the most important position in pro sports: quarterback.
That huge stack of cash the Patriots have for next March seems nice in theory. But that’s not the way the Patriots have traditionally gotten it done. They’ve used the draft to build and free agency to fill in the gaps.
And through it all, Belichick’s been emboldened to make cold, hard decisions on aging players because he knew he had cheaper guys coming up. So Rodney Harrison, Logan Mankins, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Randy Moss, Welker, etc., were shuffled along.
A number of those decisions are waiting for Belichick and Caserio at the end of this season. And the heirs apparent are not apparent.