One of the Patriots' biggest offseason dilemmas took a major step on Friday when the team decided to use the franchise tag on potential unrestricted free agent cornerback Asante Samuel.
Scheduled to be one of the biggest names on the free agent market, Samuel will receive a one-year, $7.79 million tender. If another team wants to sign Samuel now, it would have to send a pair of first-round picks New England's way.
Samuel has made it known that he would not be happy with the franchise tag, but the Patriots obviously see him as too valuable to potentially lose for nothing in return.
"Asante Samuel is an outstanding player who has been a consistent contributor for us for several years," coach Bill Belichick said in a statement. "We hope Asante remains a Patriot for many seasons to come."
Since being selected with the 120th overall pick in 2003, Samuel has started 39 of 59 games and played in 11 playoff games. He's coming off a career-high 10 interceptions in 2006. He also led the league with 24 passes defensed.
Will They Return?
Uncertainty is an inherent aspect of the off-season. From free agent comings and goings to draft preparation, there is a level of unknown that all teams must conquer to move forward. But there is a bit of certainty to some of the uncertainty. Work in both free agency and the draft generally pays off. Woo the right free agents with the right amount of money and the open market can be a stockpile of future winnings. Do all the research necessary on the endless number of prospects leading up to the draft, make the right picks and a team can end up with a draft class that lays the foundation for many future successes.
But there is another aspect of uncertainty in the off-season that teams can't really control -- aging players potentially nearing the end of their careers. The Patriots face this scenario with a number of players who have been key contributors in recent years. For a variety of specific reasons, wide receiver Troy Brown, linebacker Tedy Bruschi, linebacker Junior Seau, safety Rodney Harrison, running back Corey Dillon and punter Josh Miller can no longer simply be penciled into the starting lineup for fall 2007 action.
Troy Brown: While Brown is one of New England's 14 unrestricted free agents, his status moving forward has little to do with his contract. The 14-year veteran will turn 36 just prior to the start of training camp. The offensive co-captain played in all 16 games and tied for third on the team with 43 receptions. Despite continuing to get plenty of defensive reps at times as the team's nickel defensive back, Brown didn't miss a game for the first time since 2001 and recorded his most receptions since 2002. Even coming off his most productive and healthy season in years, Brown could be nearing the end of the road. If he does want to continue playing, there's little chance it will be anywhere but New England. But only Brown knows how hot the burning desire to play remains inside his hard working body.
Tedy Bruschi: There have been broadcast reports of Bruschi contemplating retirement as well. The 11-year veteran led the team with 124 tackles last fall, but clearly lost some of his playmaking ability and speed in covering backs out of the backfield. The defensive captain has a soon-to-be-released book in the works about his life and did little to dispel retirement questions following the team's AFC title game loss in Indy.
"You put so much into the season. The last few years I've been pretty much going year to year," Bruschi said. "I'm a little emotional right now so saying anything would be wrong. I just want to sit back and reflect on the season and right now the season is over."
Junior Seau: Seau is another one of New England's free agents. The future Hall of Famer played very well in his 11 games before going on injured reserve with a broken arm. The 17-year vet came out of a short retirement to join the Patriots and became more of a contributor than anyone could have hoped. Seau has already said he'd like to return for an 18th season. But as the Patriots work to get younger, faster and more athletic at linebacker, it would be interesting to see if Bill Belichick looks to re-sign the 37-year-old, who's played in a total of 26 games over the last three seasons.
Rodney Harrison: One guy who will certainly be back is Harrison. The questions revolving around the 34-year-old, 14-year playmaker surround his significant injuries over the last two seasons and how much that will limit his production moving forward. Harrison has said he'll be back, and anyone who doubts that hasn't been paying attention in recent years, but at what level? A major left knee injury, broken shoulder blade and right knee injury have held Harrison to just 13 games over two seasons.
Even when on the field -- although he likely never reached full health between all the injuries -- Harrison's production has been severely limited of late. The guy who had 278 tackles, six sacks, five interceptions, 19 passes defensed, four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in his first two seasons in New England has been unable to return to those high production levels between the injuries. With the injuries and age in mind, Belichick and Co. can't count on Harrison to be the durable playmaking warrior and at the very least have to create improved depth at the safety spot, if not look for a Harrison-type playmaking replacement moving forward.
As Harrison's production has decreased in the secondary, so too has Dillon's as the workhorse running back of the New England ground game. The 10-year veteran, with more than 2,600 carries and 11,000 yards under his belt, has not been the same guy over the last two seasons as the one who exploded on the Patriots scene with a franchise record 1,635 yards in 2004. Since then the 32-year-old has rushed for a combined 1,545 yards, although he's remained a consistent red zone force with 37 touchdowns in three seasons in New England. He no longer has the speed to break away on big plays and often asks out of games for a break after carries. He, too, alluded to the fact after the AFC championship that he could be thinking about retirement. While his numbers have been down and he split carries with Laurence Maroney this past fall, his retirement would leave the Patriots without a veteran presence in the backfield and only the relatively-unproven Maroney to carry the bulk of the rushing load.
Josh Miller: The final returning veteran under a small cloud of doubt is Miller. The 11-year vet finished the season on injured reserve, struggled at times before the injury and has a $100,000 roster bonus due on his contract in early March. Todd Sauerbrun showed a strong leg down the stretch and in the postseason, but he's a free agent. If New England looks to go a different direction than Miller, who's under contract through 2008, then Sauerbrun could be an option.
It's the off-season and that means decisions need to be made and uncertainty looms on the horizon. While the Patriots work to prepare for free agency and the draft, the team also has to get a handle on some of the aging players on the roster who may or may not be back in 2007.
--LB Tedy Bruschi has been selected by the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Massachusetts as the recipient of the 2007 Wish Hero Award. The award will be presented to Bruschi at the 2007 Make-A-Wish Gala to be held in Boston on March 3.
Bruschi, a stroke survivor in his own right, fulfilled two special wishes last year. He filled one with a short-notice visit to a little boy's hospital room for an afternoon playing "Madden 2006" on X-Box. And last spring Bruschi hosted a young boy named Andrew at Gillette Stadium, a memorable experience that was recorded on ESPN's My Wish series.
"Tedy's unsurpassed compassion towards our wish children is what Make-A-Wish is all about -- people coming together to help others in need," said Charlotte A. Beattie, CEO of the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Massachusetts. "He is a true hero to our wish children. We are proud to name him as the first-ever Wish Hero Award recipient."
--Bill Belichick and Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson made up last week at the Pro Bowl. Fans might remember the NFL MVP's displeasure at New England's postgame celebration and mocking of Shawne Merriman following the Patriots divisional round playoff win in San Diego. Afterwards, an upset Tomlinson questioned whether that lack of "class" trickled down from Belichick.
"We actually just had a real good conversation last night before the meeting," Tomlinson told NFL Network. "Just talked about the game and obviously what happened after the game. But it was all with good fun. It wasn't any hard feelings with anybody. And I didn't expect there to be, because we're all competitors. After a game sometimes we all just (say things), in the heat of the moment after a game, but everything was good. We were joking around out here on the football field and everything is good with us."
--Only a single Patriots player joined Bill Belichick in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. While Richard Seymour was originally selected to his fifth-straight all-star affair, a knee injury kept him out of the game. And Tom Brady turned down an opportunity to replace injured San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers, leaving left tackle Matt Light as New England's only representative. Light was originally an alternate for the game, but then earned his first career Pro Bowl slot when Baltimore's Jonathan Ogden pulled out of the game.
Light is the first New England offensive lineman to earn a Pro Bowl berth since Damien Woody in 2002 and the first Patriots tackle since Bruce Armstrong in 1997.
--The Patriots received a sixth-round pick from the Cardinals in April's draft as the conditional compensation in the trade that sent offensive lineman Brandon Gorin to Arizona on Aug. 21. Prior to the NFL's awarding of compensatory draft selections, New England now has two first-round picks (24 and 28), two sixth-round picks and single selections in the second, third, fourth and seventh rounds for the April 28-29 selection meeting.