Whelan & Dealin’

Whelan & Dealin

Whelan & Dealin’

Ben Whelan

Well, the NFL season is over, which means the start of another sports season that is almost as exciting: NFL off-season. The NFL off-season is fantastic and may be the best all of professional sports. First, there is the soft landing of the Pro-Bowl to give us a last little taste of watching football being played (sort of) until pre-season starts in August. This is directly followed by a very short period of down time, giving us just enough time to fully digest the previous year and assess what needs to happen with the team while at the same time removing all of the empty beer bottles that were thrown at the TV during the Pats playoff run. Before this gets too boring and we are reduced to displays of, in Bill Simmon-ese, “Fantanking” for the Celtics and watching the Bruins just plain tank, the combine comes around and football begins anew.

This will be an especially interesting off-season for the Patriots, who despite making it to the conference championship game were in somewhat of a rebuilding year last year. The team entered training camp with a receiving core shakier than Mike Tyson’s cellmate on Valentines Day and a linebacker in Junior Seau who is old enough to have kids on the team, not to mention that Terrel Owens could commit suicide by jumping from Corey Dillon’s age to Laurence Maroney’s. Throw in an extremely depleted secondary, and you have a team that had no business appearing in the conference championship much less hanging with the eventual Super Bowl champion for three quarters.

Now that they have finished out the season, the team can use the off-season to dramatically improve itself in numerous areas thanks to a solid free agent class, an enticing draft class and a number of shrewd extensions signed throughout the year. Pro-Bowl linebackers Lance Briggs and Adalius Thomas, both of whom would fit the Patriots system perfectly, highlight this year’s free agent class. Bill Belichick values versatility very highly and the 6-foot-2, 270-pound Thomas is a defensive Swiss-army knife having lined up at almost every position for the Ravens this year, including safety and corner. Briggs is a classic cover linebacker who can also stop the run and would complement the pass-rushing of Roosevelt Colvin perfectly. The Patriots, like almost every other team, are in a position to be very competitive in the free agent market because of the cap expansion and the fact that they have signed their entire offensive and defensive lines through at least 2009.

The only key players eligible to leave the Patriots are Dan Graham and Asante Samuel (sorry Tully Banta-Cain, you didn’t make the cut), but there is a good chance both of them will end up back in Gillette next year. Graham has expressed a great deal of interest in returning to the team and will more than likely sign back with New England at a discount. Samuel, on the other hand, has countered the Patriots offer of between $7 and $8 million with an offer of $10 million a year, more than likely pricing himself out of their range. Their best option for retaining the services of the vacuum-handed cornerback would be to franchise him, at which point he would make around $7.5 million for one year and then leave in free agency for sure next year. Most players hold a grudge after being tagged as it prevents them from realizing their true value, but Samuel, showing why the Patriots like him so much, has publicly said that he will be happy with whatever the team decodes to do.

The draft, in which the Patriots have two late first round picks, also holds many enticing players at need positions for the Patriots. Linebackers Patrick Willis (Ole Miss) and Bednarik award winner Paul Posluszny (Penn State) are both attractive options in the first round, as are the myriad of receivers making up this years drafts deepest position. The ideal option would be safety LaRon Landry (LSU), a four-year starter in a system similar to the Patriots who reminds a lot of people of Rodney Harrison, but he will have to slide quite a bit for the Patriots to have a shot at him.

I know baseball is starting up soon and the Matsuzaka show will soon be taking over, but in the meantime the off-season is the perfect way to wash the taste of not winning a championship out of our mouths. I’m as excited as Prince was at the Super Bowl halftime show (ok, maybe not that excited).