Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Countdown to Camp 2010: The Draft

For the second year in a row, the Patriots had 12 draft picks and drafted for need instead of taking the proverbial "best player available."  It's always better to be in position to take the highest rated player on the board with each pick; but the Pats held onto some of their veterans too long in 2007 and 2008, so they have to draft for need, even if they reach a bit on some of the picks.

It is still tough to judge a draft this early on, but as we near training camp, here are some thoughts on the draft class of 2010.

1.  New England signed all 12 picks before training camp started.

It's a little like yesterday's update, in that this is the non-glamorous part of the draft.  But training camp starts on Thursday, and the Patriots already signed every single draft pick, and they had a lot of them to sign..  Additionally, most of the rookies participated in off-season workouts and organized team activities.

Might not seem like much, but the Patriots have one of the more complex playbooks in the NFL.  And the advantage of extra time in May and June, along with coming to camp on time, can't be overstated as these rookies try to learn their new roles.

I've often described football as full-contact chess.  If that's true, then signing these guys
early is like getting them a private lesson with Gary Kasparov.  It won't make them prodigies, but they are ahead of a lot of their peers as training camps open.

2.  The Patriots are one of the few teams that make "sheer quantity" work.

Given their level of talent, it usually doesn't make sense to use mid-level first round picks when those players command high salaries and have less than a 50% chance of cracking the starting lineup.  It is better in most cases to trade down mid-level first rounders and stock-pile picks, although the Patriots have used first round picks to great effect when they are high enough selections.

To understand how the Patriots can make either strategy work, consider the 2008 vs. 2009 drafts.  In 2008 they had the 10th overall pick and chose the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (Jerod Mayo).  In 2009 they didn't have a high draft pick, so they traded their first rounder and played hit-or-miss in later rounds instead.

They summarily whiffed on Ron Brace but hit a homer with Sebastian Vollmer.  Second rounder Pat Chung might work out, but seventh rounder Julian Edelman already has.  Darius Butler is a maybe; but long snapper Jake Ingram out-performed the respected veteran he replaced, Lonie Paxton.

2010 saw more stock-piling, including picks in the 2011 draft.  The team traded down and got 12 picks for the second consecutive year.  And if the Pats hit on as many this year as they did in 2009, it will be a very successful draft.  Again.

The surprising strategy this year was choosing multiple players at positions of need.  There are 7 rounds in the draft, so with 12 picks, the Patriots had almost 2 picks per round.  And if they hit on just 50% of the picks (about the average for most teams), that's as many good players as a team that made its regular 7 picks and hit on 85% of them.  And no NFL team consistently hits on 85% of their picks.  None of them.

So piling up picks enabled the Pats to bring in two highly rated tight ends, Rob Gronkowski for all downs and Aaron Hernandez as more of a speed/receiving specialist.  Linebacker Brandon Spikes is a natural fit at inside linebacker, and Jermaine Cunningham seems destined to play outside linebacker.  They also got two offensive linemen and two defensive linemen in the late rounds.  And they still had picks left over for a new punter and of course their #1 pick was a cornerback.

It might not be their favored strategy, but they've made it work recently, so there's no reason to doubt them now.

3.  Willing to over-commit for "special" players.

Some teams never -- and I mean *never* -- draft special teams players.  But not only have the Patriots done so, they've spent relatively high picks on players in support of their kicking game.

When Adam Vinatieri left after 2005, the Patriots drafted kicker Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth round to replace him.  And he worked out better than anyone could have expected, sporting both a higher field goal percentage and much longer kickoffs than Adam ever had.  Then Lonie Paxton left after 2008, so the Patriots spent a sixth round pick on long snapper Jake Ingram.  And he handled his new role just about perfectly, misfiring on only one snap all season.

This year, they drafted Zoltan Mesko (great name, isn't it?) in the fifth round to replace terrible punter Chris Hanson, who somehow ranked 36 in a league with only 32 teams.  Based on their success in drafting special teams players -- positions some teams won't even spend a draft pick on -- I would expect  Zoltan ("The Magnificent!") to do quite well.

He punted for a net average of 42.5 yards a kick in college, and wasn't in some dome; he played for Tom Brady's alma mater in the cold weather of Michigan.  So there should be no adjustment to New England wind and winters.  And if past experience is a barometer, the outlook is bright for the Patriots special teams.

So in summary, the Patriots drafted for need this year and stocked up on picks to get as many chances to fill those needs as possible.  They tried to fill tight end with a free agent and two draft picks, linebacker with two draft picks, cornerback with one pick, and punter with another.  Since they spent only very late picks on the D-line, they will have to get lucky with them or one of the 2009 picks to replace Jarvis Green.

But for the last three years the team has a solid record of this, ironically since the departure of Thomas Dimitroff (former Director of Scouting), who left to run the Atlanta Falcons in 2007.  Dimitroff has done a fantastic job rebuilding the Falcons, so it's strange that his last three drafts in New England were so lackluster.  But the change in draft management has to be judged a success so far.

Hope might spring eternal... but you don't have to see things through red-white-and-blue lenses to think the 2010 draft will help the Patriots this year and into the future.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Countdown to Camp 2010: Free Agents

The Patriots only had a mediocre free agency class.  No block-buster signings, and no creative trades.  And like most teams, they treated this off-season as if it had a salary cap when it did not, so they missed a chance to reload now for the next five years.

However, they kept their eyes on the prize and did the workman-like things that will keep them contenders for the foreseeable future.  Here are the unsexy moves they made to continue building on their success.

1.  They re-signed their important free agents.

This is an underrated and under appreciated part of free agency.  But when you are a very good or great team, it's usually more important to bring back your most important free agents than to make a splash with big name players from other teams.  The Pats signed four of their top five free agents, three on defense and one special teamer.

On defense, they brought back Vince Wilfork, Tully Banta-Cain, and Leigh Bodden.  In order, that was their best defensive lineman, best linebacker, and best defensive back from a year ago.  When free agency started, there was a lot of concern that their defense would be devastated if they lost two of those three players.  Well, they rolled up their sleeves and all three will play for the Patriots this year.

Everyone agrees that Wilfork is the perfect nose tackle to anchor the 3-4.  If he walked, the Pats had no viable replacement, so he was the most important signing of the off-season.  Banta-Cain showcased the ability to run down plays from behind and hold the edge against the run, both crucial skills for an OLB in the 3-4.  And Bodden was a reclamation project from Detroit, having never gotten to the playoffs with the perennially bad Lions.  All he did was tie for the team lead in interceptions and pick up the defense quickly enough to start 14 games.

The special teams free agent was kicker Stephen Gostkowski.  He might never get out of Adam Vinatieri's shadow here, but he is a solid kicker with a better career field goal percentage than Vinatieri and much longer kickoffs than Adam ever had.

The Patriots did lose one significant free agent, Jarvis Green bolted for the Denver Broncos.  And they also brought back other free agents (Stephen Neal and Kevin Faulk, for example).  But none of those player moves carry the significance of Wilfork, Banta-Cain, Bodden, and Gostkowski.

2.  They signed complimentary players to fill in crucial gaps.

Remember how Torry Holt torched the Patriots in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXXVI, and seemingly every time he played against New England?  Well, now he'll be in the slot to start the season for the Patriots, filling in for Wes Welker as he returns from knee surgery, and perhaps teaching the young Pats receivers a thing or two about route running and getting separation.

As I wrote a few months back, Alge Crumpler will help with both of those things, too (link).  This is especially true with young tight ends in the fold and all of last year's tight ends gone.

And for good measure, they brought back David Patten, who knows the offense and will be a good outlet receiver when he's on the field.

None of these signings were earth-shattering, but all are low risk and Holt and Crumpler have the potential to be big pluses for the team.

3.  They cleared out some dead weight.

Adalius Thomas had worn out his welcome, having delivered 1.5 decent years and a lot of lack-luster performances beyond that.  He is joined by Chris Hanson, who couldn't out-punt *me*,  Chris Baker, who was better in the pre-season than the regular season, and Ben Watson, who never fulfilled the promise of his lofty draft position all those years ago.

I sort of wish they'd let Derrick Burgess go, too, but they must have plans for him since they brought him back for at least another year.  And I kind of wanted them to keep Shawn Springs, but with all the young talent in the secondary he was likely a goner anyway.

4.  They didn't lose ground to their competition.
In the AFC East, the Jets significantly weakened themselves at running back and cut one of their best O-linemen.  Their big improvement on defense is a cornerback with a sketchy reputation, and he replaces one who started on the best defense in the league last year.  The Dolphins lost as much as they gained on defense, and risked pretty much everything on WR Brandon Marshall.  But they gave him a long-term contract, which was a mistake if they want the maximum out of him this year.

As for the perennial AFC powers, the Steelers, Colts, and Chargers were characteristically quiet during free agency, choosing to re-sign their own players first, as the Patriots did.  The only AFC playoff team that improved itself significantly is the Baltimore Ravens, who brought in two good receivers (Donte Stallworth and Anquan Boldin) to go for it all before their aging defense gets too old.

Some might disagree with my assessment of the off-season, but please don't give me the overused line about how the Patriots are far behind these teams and have a lot of ground to make up.  The Pats were two plays away from being 12-4 last year (a Laurence Maroney fumble cost them the Colts game, and a terrible Brady pick cost them the second Miami game).  And if they had anything to play for the last week of the season, they could easily have gone 13-3.
The Jets and Dolphins are not close to the Patriots, and the Steelers, Colts, and Ravens are about on par with them.  So the Pats took action to remain competitive.  I wish they'd taken bold action to get much better than the other teams, but I don't run the team, so no use worrying about it now.  The only uncapped free agency we'll probably ever see is in the books, and the Pats gained some ground and most important of all, didn't lose any.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Countdown to Camp 2010: Contracts

You no doubt heard that Tom Brady and Logan Mankins are unhappy with their contracts.  And if you haven't, you can't fault the local sports media.  They've been in an absolute tizzy about it, with multiple stories appearing in all the local newspapers, nightly reports on television, and hours upon hours of sports talk angst.

Pay attention to the blather and you might think the Patriots risk having two of their best offensive players hold out.  Pay attention to the facts, and you'd probably conclude otherwise.  I did the latter, and here are some more realistic thoughts on how we got here and what's likely to happen.

Logan Mankins is currently the Patriots best offensive lineman.  He was offered a one-year tender of $3.26 million, and that has been reduced to $1.54 million at this time (because he didn't sign it by a deadline).  Mankins claims he will not play for that little and demanded a trade.

The Patriots reportedly offered Makins a five-year contract worth $35 million, which would put him in the top five highest paid offensive guards in the league.  Makins hasn't signed the deal, so he might be after an average of $8 million a year, which would put him at the top of the heap for guards.

Logan's biggest problem is that he has little leverage.  If he doesn't play this year, his 2010 contract would be enforced in 2011 instead.  And with the current labor uncertainty, that might leave him without a paycheck for two years or more.  He can't force a trade, and other teams are unlikely to pay top dollar to an interior lineman who would take at least half a season learning their blocking schemes.

The media would have you believe that teams are lining up to trade for Logan, but if that were the case he'd already be gone.  The Patriots have Sebastian Vollmer to take over for Matt Light at left tackle, and that would put Light in Mankins' position, which is a better fit for Light's talents.

The likely outcome: Mankins will hold out for training camp, and just before the last pre-season game will sign a deal close to the one currently on the table.  Oh, and the media will play the Patriots up as meanies who beat up players with every contract negotiation.  My advice -- once Mankins signs, turn off the radio for a couple of days.

As for Brady, the media paints poor old Tom as vastly underpaid, given that his 2010 salary is $3.5 million.   But not only is he under contract, he's finishing up a deal that will pay him $60 million over six years.  Now my math is a little bit creaky, but I think that comes to an average of $10 million a year.  Please correct me if I'm wrong.

And before someone repeats the lie that Peyton Manning makes way more than Brady -- Peyton will make $63 million over those same six years.

There are rumblings that Brady is unhappy with his contract, and honestly, the Patriots need to redo it.  That's why I think it will get done -- it benefits both sides.  Brady gets the security of a long-term deal, and the Patriots protect their investment and don't have to deal with the Franchise Tag or any of that messiness next year.

Add to all that the fact that 2010 is an uncapped year, and the Pats can front-load the extension with 90% of the salary and that will give them more cap flexibility in the future.  (Note: signing bonuses are divided by the number of years and spread out over the life of the contract, so giving Brady a big signing bonus will actually hurt them in cap issues going forward.)

My prediction is that Kraft will intervene if it becomes necessary, but this deal will get done.  And Brady is too much of a team player to go all "Deion Branch" on them.  So don't worry about Brady hitting the open market next year or pouting because he didn't get his money.  He'll be in camp, excited to work with the young tight ends and receivers they signed.  And some point during camp the team will announce a long-term deal with Brady.

Feel free to call or write your favorite sports media personality with this information.  It always drives them crazy when you refute their hysteria with facts :)

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!