This week marks the halfway point of the Patriots’ offseason.
It’s been just over four months since the end of New England’s 2008 season, and it’s roughly four months before the 2009 regular-season opener against Buffalo. How have things changed for the Patriots since they walked off the field at Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium after beating the Bills, 13-0, in Buffalo back on Dec. 28, 2008? And how do they look with the 2009 season looming on the horizon?
With the initial free-agent frenzy and draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just two-plus months away, here’s a chronological look at the major events of New England’s offseason to this point, and what they mean for the long-term future of the franchise.
Jan. 13: Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli leaves the Patriots to take the job as general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs.
What it means: With coach Bill Belichick, Pioli was considered one of the premier architects of a New England dynasty that won three titles in four years. The removal of Pioli from the equation in Foxborough means more is placed on the shoulders of Belichick, something he’s acknowledged when he passed up his annual trip to the owners’ meetings in favor of more pre-draft evaluation.
“Some of our current player and personnel situations, (we’re) kind of re-organizing and revamping some things in the personnel department,” Belichick said. “That’s been a good experience, and as much as we'll miss Scott, we’re moving on in that direction.”
Since Pioli left, helping the Patriots move in that direction have been Nick Caserio and Floyd Reese, who were named New England’s director of player personnel and senior football advisor, respectively, shortly after Pioli’s departure. The two have now combined to handle many of Pioli’s responsibilities -- while Caserio has handled many of the day-to-day operations, the elder Reese has become Belichick’s consigliere, a trusted sounding board who goes back more than 30 years with the coach and shares a similar football philosophy.
With the draft and first wave of free agency completed, it doesn’t appear the Patriots’ overriding team-building philosophy installed by Belichick and Pioli in 2000 -- it’s not about collecting talent, it’s about assembling a team -- has been altered. Since the change in management, there have been no signings or trades in New England that might be considered out of character for the franchise.
Jan. 21: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady speaks with a Canadian sports radio station. It’s his first public interview since injuring his knee in the 2008 season opener against the Chiefs.
“[Expletive] happens, so to speak. The reality is it happens ... I’m in a new part of my career, and a different process that I’m excited about,” said Brady. “Rehabilitation has different challenges. The tough part is you’re not experiencing stuff you love to do. Once you get over that, you focus on whatever you have to focus on.”
As for his rehab: “It’s going really well ... things come up and you just have to focus your energy and attention on all the positive things ... I’m excited about the process and the so many wonderful people that have helped me. I think I’m the most well-taken care of knee patient in history.”
What it means: Brady’s positivity was reflected in the organizational decision roughly a month later when New England traded away quarterback Matt Cassel to Kansas City, presumably because it believes that Brady is ready to return. Since then, Patriots players and coaches have given their thumbs up at the progress No. 12 has made during his rehab.
“Tom’s been doing well,” Belichick said in late April. “He’s been doing his offseason work without any limitations, so he seems to be doing fine.”
“[Brady] threw me a ball, and you could still hear that little whistle,” running back Sammy Morris said recently when asked about a workout with Brady. “It’s been a while since I heard that.
“He looks good. Obviously, no one really saw him a whole lot when he was rehabbing during the season last year. But he looks good. I think the way he looks and the way he feels and the way he approaches the game, it’s a trickle-down. I think everybody else feels better too.”
Feb. 27: The Patriots sign running back Fred Taylor.
What it means: New England has added several complementary players on the offensive side of the football this offseason. Taylor, tight ends Chris Baker and Alex Smith and wide receivers Greg Lewis and Joey Galloway were some of the more notables either signed or acquired via trade.
All the signings should push the starters for playing time, including Taylor, who will engage in a battle for reps with Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Ditto for Baker and Smith, who are added to an already crowded tight end picture. Lewis and Galloway figure to compete for the role of No. 3 receiver.
Feb. 28: The Patriots trade linebacker Mike Vrabel and quarterback Matt Cassel to the Chiefs for a second-round pick.
What it means: The deal -- which came after New England franchised Cassel -- appeared to cement the fact the organization believes Brady will be able to go in 2009 (see above). However, Vrabel’s inclusion in the trade suddenly removed a sizable chunk of the Patriots pass rush. Will New England go with Pierre Woods, Shawn Crable or Tully Banta-Cain at that spot? Or will they go after free agent Jason Taylor, who’s still on the open market, and reportedly considering offers from both the Patriots and Dolphins?
Owner Robert Kraft -- as well as many other Patriots fans -- would certainly love for that spot to be filled by Taylor. Kraft told Yahoo! Sports at the owners meetings later that spring that Taylor was a “great player.” As for Taylor coming to New England, Kraft added, “I’m sure that can happen if he wants it.” For his part, Taylor seemed flattered, telling reporters, “It’s great to be wanted.”
“I did hear that. I can’t lie,” Taylor told reporters asked about Kraft’s comments. “I have not talked to Robert Kraft. We'll leave it at that. Those things will sort themselves out, and hopefully in the near future so I can get back to work. But it's great to be wanted. It's great to be wanted. Sure, especially an organization like them or the Dolphins.”
Going forward, Taylor remains the great unknown for this team: If he does sign with the Patriots, they would appear to be a fit at outside linebacker opposite Adalius Thomas for the next season, maybe two. If Taylor returns to Miami, New England would likely be forced to rotate a combination of players at that spot -- call it outside linebacker by committee -- for the 2009 season.
April 25: Second-round picks Patrick Chung, Ron Brace, Darius Butler and Patrick Vollmer were among the 12 players taken by New England in the 2009 NFL Draft.
What it means: The selections of Chung and Brace were nods to possible needs the team may have in the future, particularly safety Rodney Harrison and nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Both veterans face uncertain futures with the Patriots: Harrison as he attempts to rehab from a quad injury he suffered last year and Wilfork as he enters the final year of his contract. Both Chung and Brace are long-term investments whose short-term careers will be dependent on what Harrison and Wilfork decide to do this season and next.
April 26: The Patriots trade cornerback Ellis Hobbs to Philadelphia for two fifth-round draft picks.
What it means: The cornerback spot has gotten a drastic overhaul. Veterans who saw the bulk of the action last year have either been traded or cut loose since the end of the season (Hobbs, Lewis Sanders, Jason Webster and Deltha O’Neal), and many of the ones who remain have only one year under their belt in the New England system (Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley). In their place are free-agent signees (Shawn Springs, Leigh Bodden), as well as a rookie (Butler).
It doesn’t appear the Patriots will add any more cornerbacks between now and late July, so New England figures to enter training camp with a great positional battle at the position. Our guess would be that Wheatley -- who became a starter midway through the 2008 season and was impressive before suffering a wrist injury -- and Springs would have the inside track on the starters' jobs, while Butler, Bodden and Wilhite battle for the nickel corner position.
As far as Hobbs’ special teams contributions, Butler might figure into the mix as a kick returner, along with Matthew Slater and Wes Welker. Welker has the best background at this position, but you figure the Patriots would love to see someone other than their No. 2 receiver step up and win the job.
Christopher Price covers the Patriots for WEEI.com.