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Kraft Needs To Buy Back Fans’ Love

Monday, March 10, 2014

 

The NFL free-agency period can be confusing with all this talk of non-tenders, transition tags and prorated signing bonuses, so let’s break it down in terms the average American male can understand.

The NFL’s equivalent of the holiday shopping season begins Tuesday, and New England Patriots’ owner Bob Kraft can’t afford to treat his royal rooters like a side piece sitting by her phone firing up the Netflix waiting for your 3 a.m. text.

Coming off another disappointing playoff loss – the 10th consecutive season in which the Patriots have failed to win the Super Bowl since winning three out of four – Kraft needs to “wife up” the New England fan base and show how much he cares by spending his Cinema de Lux/Bass Pro Shops money on the free-agent market.

The NFL salary cap has been set at $133 million for 2014 and the Patriots have more than $15 million in cap space that we know of. In its effort to dupe fans into believing its league is more fair and balanced than the others, the NFL has perpetuated the salary cap myth for years, claiming the numbers are set in stone, but even Bill Belichick himself has gone on the record last January to say – and this is a direct quote – “cap space, as we all know, can be maneuvered in a number of ways.”

If the Patriots balk at a potential big-money free agent in what is shaping up to be a deep talent pool this spring after raising ticket prices again in January and then cry poverty on the backend, they’re pulling the cashmere over your eyes. With the talent available on this year’s market and enough money in the bank to dish out, there’s no excuse – none whatsoever – to enter 2014 with a roster as poorly constructed or lacking in depth as last year’s team.

Knowing Tom Brady is nearing the end of his leash with little time left to win another title before he retires, the Patriots need to go all in and load up with enough talent to make a real push toward the Super Bowl. It might not work, but they need to give it more than the community-college try they gave last year when their headline moves consisted of overpaying for oft-injured receiver Danny Amendola and wasting an additional $5 million on Adrian Wilson, who blew out his Achilles and missed the entire season.

Forget about what kind of salary-cap hell they could get themselves into down the road if they overspend. This entire country lives in debt. The Patriots can afford to sacrifice a year or two if a free-agent binge brings them another championship within the next two years before Brady takes his permanent siesta.

And it’s not as if they need to spend all the available dollars on one 14-karat safety or wide receiver. Again, this is a deep free-agent class at nearly every position, and there are plenty of options regardless of your tax bracket.

If you’re in the market for a safety, which the Patriots should be, you could break the bank on Cleveland’s T.J. Ward, a 27-year-old playmaker who enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2013 with 123 tackles, two picks and a forced fumble, or make a pitch for San Francisco’s Donte Whitner, an eight-year veteran who, at 28, might not command much more than the three-year, $14.5-million contract he recently played out with the 49ers.

The Patriots declined to use their franchise tag on Aqib Talib, which means the oft-injured cornerback will hit the open market and might sign elsewhere this month unless New England can bring him back at a more affordable price than the $5 million salary he earned in 2013. Assuming Talib leaves, the Patriots have other options depending on what they want to spend. Charles Tillman is available and, despite missing eight games last year due to injury, is well worth the same money New England was willing to spend on a long-term contract for Talib last year before he decided on a one-year deal instead.

Of all the free-agent cornerbacks on the market, Tillman made the most in 2013 ($6.2 million), so if the price tag is too high for the Patriots, they could look for a second-tier option such as Tennessee’s Alterraun Verner, a decent, yet unspectacular, 25-year-old defensive back who’d make a solid addition and almost certainly cost less than Tillman. Worst-case scenario, they could make a pitch for 35-year-old veteran Champ Bailey, who was cut by Denver this week because the Broncos wisely didn’t want to pay him $9 million in 2014.

A wide receiver would be nice, too, and someone like former Giant Hakeem Nicks might be the perfect one- or two-year stopgap at an affordable price before Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson become reliable options in the passing game. Given the Patriots’ knack for taking on reclamation projects other teams would rather pass on, don’t rule out Tennessee’s Kenny Britt, a former first-round-pick-turned-head-case who destroyed his own value with an awful turnout in 2013, but still has the talent – not to mention the 6-foot-3 frame – to be a possible low-risk/high-reward signing.

Speaking of which, there’s also a market for Raiders’ running back Darren McFadden, who played in only 10 games last season in a disappointing walk year but is still just 26 years old with an intriguing resume in Oakland and plenty to prove on the open market. What about Maurice Jones-Drew? It’s hard to believe, but he’s still only 29 and figures to have enough left in the tank after playing only 21 games the past two years. Like McFadden, he had an awful contract year in 2013 and might have no choice but to take less than market value just to prove he’s not in decline.

There’s also Darren Sproles, the NFL’s leader in all-purpose yards since 2007, who might also be on the chopping block in New Orleans if the Saints are unable to trade him. Sproles’ production dipped last year, but he’s still only 30 and could play a role similar to what Kevin Faulk provided during his time with New England. Stevan Ridley’s fumble issues and LeGarrette Blount’s disappearing act in the conference championship game should put the Patriots on high alert.

Whatever the need, there’s a player available at the right price, and the Patriots have enough money to spend – and enough sense to rearrange some bonus money if they’re up against the cap – with no excuse for a lame showing on the open market.

As the song goes, if they like Tillman, Ward or Whitner, they should put a ring on them. The loyal bedfellows of Patriots Nation deserve better than the side-piece treatment.  

 

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