Insiders Report: Changes Coming

<p>The New England Patriots have some decisions to make this offseason, notably how to deal with the contracts of some players who are taking up a large portion of the salary cap. The team would like to have something done before today's deadline with soon to be free agent Adam Vinatieri. Both side have until 4pm when a decision has to be made whether or not to place a franchise tag on him.</p> <p>More on today's insider report.</p>

INSIDERS REPORT

How quickly Super Bowl glory fades. The Patriots won their third championship in four years back on Feb. 6 and had less than three weeks to celebrate before turning their attention to free agency and the draft, highlighted by this week's annual scouting combine in Indianapolis.

The Patriots enter this year's draft with only one first-round pick after entering the last two with a pair of first rounders. But that won't affect their draft preparation or their approach.

Vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli often talks about the Patriots looking for the "right 53" players as opposed to the best 53. New England's program is demanding and it takes the right kind of player to fit in on a club that has made "team" play more than a cliche.

Asked how demanding the Patriots program is during a recent radio interview on Providence's (R.I.) WHJJ, veteran linebackers Matt Chatham and Rosevelt Colvin both shook their heads before Chatham said, "Put it this way. If we weren't winning, we might be complaining. But how can you argue with the results? We are winning and we see that the hard work we put in is worth it."

What kind of demands do the Patriots place on their players? "Study hard, work hard, be selfless, have a role and accept a role," Pioli said. "There are a lot of people with egos that can't handle situations like that. We have to find guys willing to sacrifice certain personal loves or desires for the overall good of the team to maybe get something later on that's greater than that little need that they have."

That something later on has been a Super Bowl championship in three of the last four seasons. For many players, winning is worth the sacrifices, whether those come in the form of extra work or a financial hit. Colvin is a prime example. He turned down a much richer signing bonus offered to him by the Cardinals before the 2003 season to sign with New England for what he felt was a better chance to win.

So this week, Pioli, Belichick and their staff are in Indianapolis trying to tie up loose ends and complete their draft pictures. After spending time with players at the Senior Bowl, they will interview many more this week and some for a second time as they try to determine whether a college prospect will fit in their program.

Pioli has noticed a common trait in both the team's good and poor draft picks over the years. "Low maintenance players that are passionate about football, that are all about working hard to be good football players. And talent," he said about the better draft picks. "On some we thought those traits were there and we were wrong. We were wrong on estimating the importance of football to a player."

NOTES, QUOTES

  • Three years and two Super Bowls later, the Patriots have quite obviously been proven correct in their decision to retain Tom Brady over Drew Bledsoe. The Patriots acquired a 2003 first-round pick for Bledsoe when they dealt him to the division rival Buffalo Bills. The Bills announced last week that Bledsoe would be cut while the team throws its support behind second-year man J.P. Losman. New England used the pick acquired for Bledsoe on defensive lineman Ty Warren while also using the flexibility the additional pick provided to trade down out of the first round with their own 2003 first rounder into the second round and to retain an additional first rounder in 2004. The Patriots selected defensive back Eugene Wilson with the 2003 second rounder and defensive lineman Vince Wilfork with the 2004 first rounder. They also went 5-1 against the Bills in the three years Bledsoe played in Buffalo while winning two division crowns.

  • Patriots senior vice president and chief operating officer Andy Wasynczuk has left the organization to join the faculty at the Harvard Business School. Wasynczuk was heavily involved in negotiations to secure a site for a new stadium and led the campaign that secured the town of Foxborough's endorsement to construct the new facility. He oversaw the day-to-day operation during the construction of Gillette Stadium and played a pivotal role in negotiating its naming rights. He also managed the team's salary cap and handled contract negotiations for several years.

  • The Patriots signed street free agent CB Ike Charlton, OT Lance Nimmo and DL Buck Rasmussen. They also signed the following street free agents and allocated them to NFL Europe: WR Mark Bartosic, WR Ricky Bryant, RB Kory Chapman, TE Joel Jacobs, WR Cedric James and LB Grant Steen. New England did not re-sign LB Justin Kurpeikis, who spent part of last year on the active roster and two different stints on the practice squad. He quickly signed with Cleveland, where Romeo Crennel snatched him up. Since he finished the season on the practice squad, he was free to sign anywhere.

  • The Patriots announced the first ticket price increase since moving into Gillette Stadium in 2002. The best seats went from $99 to $125 while 100-level corner and end zone seats will jump to $89 along with 200 level corner and end-zone seats. The 300 level sideline seats will cost $75 and the 300 level corner/end zone seats will be $59.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Our thoughts and prayers are with him. I don't know what's going on with him. He's been our iron man, he's been tremendous and he's had a great impact on my career. He's just a great guy that affects so many people on and off the field." -- Safety Rodney Harrison speaking to Fox Sports New England regarding teammate Tedy Bruschi.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

While the Patriots have as many as three vacancies to fill on the coaching staff, it also has plenty of personnel issues with which to deal, some of which could be resolved before the March 2 start of free agency. Cornerback Ty Law's future with the club isn't likely to be known by then.

The Patriots do not need to create salary cap room to reach cap compliance by March 2 so any decision involving Law and his close to $10 million in new money for 2005 can wait. Law does not have any roster bonuses due until training camp when he is to be paid a $1 million reporting bonus. And if Law is not in the team's plan for 2005, the club will almost certainly play coy about his status while trying to deal him for a draft pick rather than lose him without compensation.

That will be hard to do because Law is coming off foot surgery that will make it difficult for him to work out for teams or pass a physical. But don't be surprised if the Patriots absorb Law's outrageously high cap number that will be in the $13 million range for 2005. The four-time Pro Bowl cornerback is entering the final year of a seven-year contract and the Patriots could handle his high cap hit for one more season before moving on. He would cost the Patriots more than $3 million in dead money if he were released, and then New England would have to search for and a pay his replacement.

Without Law, New England is thin at corner and without a shutdown player at the position. Sure, it won the Super Bowl without Law, but Belichick understands Law's value, which is why he was retained last year with a $10.2 cap number, contrary to rampant speculation that had him being released. This will be an interesting case to watch throughout the spring, but Belichick isn't likely to tip his hand.

If New England is intent on playing 2005 without Law and can't secure compensation in the form of a trade, it would wait until after June 1 to release the player so that his dead money cap hit is spread equally between 2005 and 2006. That's unlikely since New England would want to clear him off the books after this season.

The least likely scenario involves Law agreeing to a contract extension with New England or a restructured deal. He is intent on making every dime in the seven-year deal he signed after the 1998 season and has repeatedly said that he would not accept a pay cut. The sides tried to work on extension last year, but were so far apart on the guaranteed money that Law publicly lashed out at Belichick.

More pressing than the Law situation in terms of time is how the team will handle Adam Vinatieri's pending free agency along with the tenders to restricted free agents, most notably wide receiver David Givens. While offensive linemen Tom Ashworth, Brandon Gorin and Stephen Neal and defensive lineman Jarvis Green are also restricted and all have starting experience, they will all likely be given the minimum tender. Givens may command a medium tender, which would bring first-round draft pick compensation if he signs an offer sheet with another club that the Patriots elect not to match.

NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES:

1. Cornerback. Law may or may not return. Tyrone Poole has two years left on his deal, but reportedly almost walked away and retired before playing a down in New England. So his future might be in question after he missed most of 2004 with a knee injury. The Patriots need a young shutdown-caliber corner to replace Law and provide depth at a position that depended on an undrafted rookie and a 12th-year wide receiver to stay afloat this season. Amazingly, the Patriots still won the Super Bowl, but Bill Belichick is smart enough to know he can't go back to that well in 2005 and expect similar success. With Law entering the final year of his contract, now is the time to bring in a young, top-level corner.

2. Inside linebacker. Thirty-six-year-old Roman Phifer may retire or be let go. Ted Johnson, 32, and Tedy Bruschi, 31, aren't getting younger. The Patriots need to groom or find a younger replacement to anchor the 3-4 defense and remain strong up the middle. If Bruschi's health status surrounding his recent hospitalization for a mild stroke affects his playing status, this becomes priority No. 1.

3. Wide receiver. David Patten is set to be an unrestricted free agent. Troy Brown is 33 and has a $5.7 million cap number that has to be re-worked for him to stay. Bethel Johnson hasn't developed as a receiver and P.K. Sam ended the season on the reserve/suspended list and must claw his way out of the doghouse. David Givens is a restricted free agent. The Patriots need to address this situation, one that could change if Givens, Patten and perhaps Brown are back in the fold. Durability has been an issue for New England's wideouts and depth is imperative. The Patriots have yet to pick up the option on Brown's contract for 2005.

FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.

TRANSITION PLAYER: None.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: RB Rabih Abdullah; OG Joe Andruzzi; S Je'Rod Cherry; LB Don Davis; WR Kevin Kasper; OT Adrian Klemm; QB Jim Miller; FB Patrick Pass; WR David Patten; PK Adam Vinatieri.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: OT Tom Ashworth; WR David Givens; OT Brandon Gorin; DL Jarvis Green; CB Earthwind Moreland; OG Stephen Neal.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: DT Ethan Kelley; OL Gene Mruczkowski; S Guss Scott.

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