EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 2, 2009

Out with the old, in with the new

Time to build around Mayo, cut ties with Harrison, Bruschi, Seau

On Pro Football

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FOXBORO — With all the hysteria surrounding Matt Cassel's emergence, you hardly noticed the construction work being done at Gillette Stadium.

That foundation, or at least the cornerstone of it, earned some well-deserved recognition as linebacker Jerod Mayo accepted the Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.

"My main goal was to make it to the playoffs and win the Super Bowl, but it's definitely an honor to get this award," said the 6-foot-1, 242-pounder out of Tennessee, who had a team-high 93 solo tackles (139 overall). "Hopefully, I can build off this and have a successful campaign next year.

"For the most part I will be here in Foxboro (in the offseason) trying to get better. It is a nonstop thing for me. Football is my life. I love football. I am going to study this past season, the things I did well and the things I did poorly and try to improve on those things. I feel like there is still a lot of room for me to improve my game."

Mayo's performance, from Day 1 of training camp, rarely wavered. He struggled at times in pass coverage but chewed up ballcarriers. One interesting note is that defensive coordinator Dean Pees didn't hesitate to turn him loose on the inside blitz late in the season. Mayo excelled in that role, which is something to look forward to next fall.

Golden opportunity to rebuild

With Cassel's value soaring and at least a dozen teams in need of a quarterback, the offseason offers unique opportunities to re-tool for the long haul, not just apply Band-Aids.

Assuming they think Brady will be ready to go in 2009 — which obviously is the question of the offseason — the Pats can franchise Cassel and trade him for a first-round pick. It remains to be seen, but I think he's worth the No. 1 overall pick.

They already have three draft picks in the top 60, so Bill Belichick is in position to greatly impact the defense.

Also, they are in good shape with the salary cap, another big plus.

Now, it's up to the Patriots to make it happen.

Get rid of defensive old-timers

Mayo is merely the first step in the defensive overhaul. Remember, this is a football team that brought in the aged, Rosevelt Colvin (31) and Junior Seau (39), to aid the cause.

Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Adalius Thomas and Rodney Harrison are 35, 33, 31 and 36, respectively. All but Vrabel finished the year in street clothes.

Add in the fact that the secondary was regularly torched, allowing 27 TD passes (2nd worst in NFL) rate and 7.3 yards per attempt (8th worst). It's a group that needs help ... better help than Deltha O'Neal, Fernando Bryant, Tank Williams and the rest of cheap-money retreads Belichick and Scott Pioli brought in over the last 12 months.

The Pats need impact players.

Impact equals Mayo, Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork. It is not Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite. Both rookies, who saw serious time in the secondary, are nice looking complements. This defense lacked playmakers.

Those are typically found near the top of the first round, as Mayo, the 10th pick overall, was.

Shawn Crable and Vince Redd did some good things in the preseason. They show signs of fitting in. Brandon Meriweather has asserted himself as a legitimate NFL safety, and James Sanders might be a solid nickel or dime guy.

The time is now, though, to cut ties with Harrison, Bruschi and Seau.

The young guys need to grow and show they can get it done. Harrison is a potential Hall of Famer, a player who capped his career by anchoring a run to a Super Bowl title.

Bruschi remains one of the great Patriots of all time, right next to John Hannah, Gino Cappelletti and Troy Brown.

With the front three, Seymour, Wilfork and Warren, heading toward the back nine, it's time to change the face of the defense with youth.

Assessing the offense

Offensively, expect a fairly quiet offseason, outside of the quarterback position, which hinges on Brady's knee joint.

Jabar Gaffney and LaMont Jordan are the only real offensive players of note with contracts running out.

Gaffney grew into a capable No. 3 pass catcher. He knows the system well and shouldn't be heavily chased by some other suitor, meaning he'll likely be an easy re-sign.

Jordan, who ran for 363 yards, averaged 4.5 a carry. He and Sammy Morris (727 yards, 4.7 average) made New Englanders forget all about 2006 first-round pick Laurence Maroney and his tip-toeing.

Is Maroney in jeopardy if the team chooses to re-sign Jordan? Probably not. Maroney's rookie deal, good through 2010, is cap friendly, a little over $1.5 million for a cap hit, which is relatively cheap when talking about a lead back.

The offensive line, other than super sub Russ Hochstein, is locked in at least through 2009.

Wes Welker and Randy Moss are money in the bank, leaving only the question at tight end, where Ben Watson, a No. 1 pick in 2004, has struggled.

Are there needs? Sure.

A young, elusive running back might be on Belichick's wish list as dependable Kevin Faulk, now 32, enters season No. 11.

Another young receiver? Sure, plus a tight end.

All those accessories look to be later picks or short-money free-agents, minor additions as this team focuses on its aging defense.

E-mail Hector Longo at hlongo@eagletribune.com.

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