In reality, the clouds of this rebuilding plan have been quietly gathering for 20 months. It’s only now that the New England Patriots got around to delivering the whopping thunder-clap: dealing defensive end Richard Seymour(notes) to the Oakland Raiders this weekend for a first-round pick.
At first blush, it looks like a monumental high-wire act with coach Bill Belichick trying to balance the franchise as it reaches in two directions. With the Patriots considered an AFC Super Bowl favorite, one hand grasps for another championship. But the other reaches for something equally important: long-term prosperity and the need to atone for an aging roster and a three-year run of poor drafts.
Some will argue that it’s too much immediate risk. But we’ve seen Belichick and the Patriots follow this same blueprint before, making cold, calculated decisions based on a player’s age, the money he’s seeking and his fit in the system. As the Latin proverb says, fortune favors the bold, and nobody has been bolder than the Patriots when it has come to severing ties with talent. They cut locker room favorite Lawyer Milloy(notes). They traded Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch(notes). And they simply walked away from potential Hall of Famer Ty Law(notes). And they’ve continued to thrive through all of it.
So there’s the rub with Seymour, who turns 30 this season. With elite defensive players drawing financially shuddering contracts, and younger nose tackle Vince Wilfork(notes) due a massive contract extension, New England eschewed sentimentality and accepted that Seymour had trumped his value to the system. The fact that Oakland was willing to surrender a likely top 10 draft pick only made the decision that much easier.
That draft choice will help repair a situation that few outside of the greater Northeast have recognized: that New England has drafted poorly in recent years and relied largely on aging pieces to succeed. Go back to that vaunted 2007 team and look at the defense. Safety Rodney Harrison(notes) turned 35 that season, while the entire starting cast of linebackers in the Super Bowl was a mixture of 30-somethings – Junior Seau(notes) (39), Tedy Bruschi(notes) (34), Mike Vrabel(notes) (32) and Adalius Thomas(notes) (30).
Key offensive pieces in that Super Bowl had turned 30 or gone beyond, too, including Tom Brady(notes) (30), Randy Moss(notes) (30), Kevin Faulk(notes), (31) and Sammy Morris(notes) (30). Twenty months later, all of those pieces are just a little older, and the ranks of the 30-plus have (or will) come to include guys like Matt Light(notes) (31), Dan Koppen(notes) (30 this month) and a number of aging free agents who were added in the offseason.
Which is why Belichick is becoming more devoted to replenishing the roster’s youth and star power, something that might not require such a drastic move with Seymour if the draft classes from 2006, 2007 and 2008 hadn’t been so disappointing. Of the 26 players in those three classes, linebacker Jerod Mayo(notes) has shown the makings of a star, kicker Stephen Gostkowski(notes) has been to a Pro Bowl, and safety Brandon Meriweather(notes) looks like a solid starter. The rest? Those still on the roster appear to be little more than forgettable depth chart ballast.
All of which makes dealing Seymour a key pivot point in sustaining the Patriots in the long term. With the 2009 draft class looking like a solid rebound from the last few years of blundering, Oakland’s pick gives New England the best chance at a single-digit, first-round pick since the team took Seymour sixth overall in 2001. And it signals a new round of clarity for the future of this franchise.
Indeed, two key things that can be inferred now that Seymour has been dealt. First, Wilfork will be on the roster one way or another over the next several years. Whether he is signed to a new deal or simply slapped with the franchise tag for multiple seasons (and the latter is a definite possibility), the latest trade signals an unambiguous signal: New England’s pro bowl nose tackle isn’t going anywhere.
Secondly – and perhaps most important – this move smacks of a coach who is planning to stick around for the long term. From 2009’s massive draft class to the stockpiling for the future, Belichick appears to be planning for the remainder of Brady’s career in New England, and perhaps beyond.
So while Seymour’s departure this weekend was high in shock value and rife with potential risk, it also was an absolute necessity in the longer view. As we’ve seen from this blueprint before, the Patriots and Belichick are more than willing to sacrifice talent and sentiment for replenishing the means in future accomplishment.
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