BOSTON (CBS) — It’s a saying that’s become trite, but it is one that is nevertheless true. Tom Brady’s championship window is closing.
Brady will turn 35 years old this summer, and while he’s still one of the best active quarterbacks in the NFL, to expect him to improve as he enters his mid-30s is to expect a lot, considering the only athletes to do so in recent history were named Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and may or may not have had some extra help in that endeavor.
So the overused, tired cliché of Brady’s “window closing” is indeed a reality, giving the Patriots one or two more years of being not just a Super Bowl contender, but a Super Bowl favorite.
That situation leaves Bill Belichick and the Patriots in a rather unique situation heading into the draft. It is Belichick’s custom to stockpile low-round draft picks in order to build his team. His explanation is almost always the same: “We make the decisions that are the best for the team.”
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The team has drafted in the top 10 just twice in Belichick’s 12 drafts, and even then, the Patriots still traded down from No. 7 to No. 10 to draft Jerod Mayo in 2008. Overall, the Patriots have foregone a first-round pick entirely in two of Belichick’s 12 drafts and have used two first-round picks in a draft just once. By contrast, Belichick’s averaged 4.5 picks per year in rounds 5-7, finding gems like David Givens (seventh), Dan Koppen (fifth), Tully Banta-Cain (seventh) and a quarterback named Brady (sixth), but missing just as often as he has with his firsts and seconds.
This year, the Patriots have two first-round picks (Nos. 27 and 31 overall) and two second-round picks (Nos. 48 and 62) but zero picks in rounds 5-7. Belichick faces the decision of going for broke in one of the final years of Brady being an elite quarterback or sticking to his practice of acquiring picks and building for the long term.
While it’s impossible to ever predict anything Belichick ever does, he shouldn’t spend too much time agonizing over this one. If ever there was a time to acquire game-changing, first-round talent, it is now.
Just seven short weeks ago, the Patriots were one play away from winning the Super Bowl. One more sack, one more catch, one more tackle for a loss, one more interception, and Belichick and Brady could have had their fourth Super Bowl. Indeed, it was Giants first-round pick (No. 15) from 2010, Jason Pierre-Paul, who was wreaking havoc for the Patriots all game, and it was 2009 first-round pick Hakeem Nicks who finished the game with 10 catches for 109 yards. Game-changing players were given a stage to win a championship, and they did.
Now, the Patriots are returning almost the same exact team in 2012, and the addition of a premier talent could make all the difference in the world. Trading down for picks in the lower rounds could help the team in 2015 and beyond, but should that really be Belichick’s concern at this point?
Consider the possibilities. The draft value chart indicates the Patriots could move into the 12-15 area by trading their two first-round picks. At the least, they could move up a few spots from No. 27 by trading that pick and one of their second-rounders.
That range would offer the Patriots some intriguing options, particularly on the defensive line. LSU behemoth defensive tackle Michael Brockers (6-foot-5, 322 pounds), Alabama outside linebacker Courtney Upshall (9.5 sacks), Mississippi State’s giant D tackle Fletcher Cox (5 sacks), Clemson defensive end Andre Branch (10.5 sacks) and Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus (16 sacks) are all expected to be available. Boston College’s Luke Kuechly (16 tackles per game) could also be there in the teens. Each has to entice the Patriots, who lost Mark Anderson (10 sacks) to free agency and can’t depend on 11-year veteran Andre Carter to be healthy next season (Carter is currently a free agent).
And even with the services of Anderson and Carter last year, the Patriots managed just 40 sacks, good enough for 14th in the NFL, while allowing an incomprehensible 294 passing yards per game, second only to the history-setting Green Bay defense which allowed 300 per game.
The Patriots have used free agency to address their one offensive weakness (wide receiver depth), meaning the draft can address their glaring weaknesses on defense. That is, unless they want to add the potential game-changing talent of Notre Dame wideout Michael Floyd, who caught 179 passes for 2,172 yards, 21 touchdowns in his last two seasons combined.
Belichick will turn 60 years old 10 days before this year’s draft. Brady will turn 35 during training camp. Their time atop the NFL is running out. It may go against every fiber of Belichick’s being to load up on first- and second-round level talent while passing on value picks in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds, it’s time – at last – to change the strategy.
To borrow a line, it’s a decision that’s best for the team.
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