As long as Brady plays, young Patriots are built to last

BY Alex Marvez • February 5, 2015

From tight end Rob Gronkowski chugging beers to wide receiver Julian Edelman and running back LeGarrette Blount mocking the Seattle Seahawks, the New England Patriots thoroughly enjoyed Wednesday’s Super Bowl XLIX victory parade.

It may not be long before the franchise is celebrating in the streets of Boston once again.

With the way their team is built, the Patriots have a legitimate shot at becoming the first back-to-back Super Bowl winner since New England pulled off the repeat during the 2003 and 2004 seasons.

Start with roster age. The 2004 Patriots that won Super Bowl XXXIX featured a significant share of graybeards. Eight starters and eight backups who played in New England’s 24-21 win over Philadelphia had at least six years of NFL experience.

By comparison, only nine non-specialists on the 2015 Patriots were veterans of six years or more. New England became the youngest team to ever win a Super Bowl with an average player age of 25.2 years. Twenty members on the 53-man roster entered the NFL in 2009 or later. That includes cornerstones like Edelman, defensive end Chandler Jones and Gronkowski, who recovered from injuries this season to resurface as the NFL’s best tight end.

The difference in how the Patriots constructed this roster from the 2004 version is especially evident in the linebacker corps. Using a 3-4 scheme at the time, the average age of New England’s four starters in 2004 (Roman Phifer, Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel) was 32.3. Vrabel was the baby of the bunch at age 29 with eight years of NFL experience.

New England’s current linebacker corps in a 4-3 system is fueled by Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins (four-year NFL veteran Akeem Ayers primarily played a part-time role because of New England’s extensive use of nickel and dime packages). Collins and Hightower were the Patriots’ top two tacklers. Both are adept at stopping the run, rushing the passer and dropping into coverage. Each will only be 25 years old entering next season.

And neither entered the 2014 campaign as New England’s best linebacker.

That status was held by Jerod Mayo, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 6. As good a player as he is when healthy, Mayo may not figure into New England’s future. He turns 29 later this month and is slated to earn $6.25 million for the 2015 season. That will likely be too lofty a salary for what now figures to be a part-time player barring an unexpected return to a 3-4 defense.

Look for the Patriots to offer a restructured contract that would allow Mayo to return at a reduced rate. Mayo also could be released to create salary cap space that can be used elsewhere.

Such room is needed. If the NFL’s 2015 salary cap remains at $141.8 million as projected, the Patriots are currently over by about $3 million.

Cap management is a staple to New England’s long-term success. There is no sentimentality with Bill Belichick. Just ask some of those cogs who have helped New England’s head coach win championships like guard Logan Mankins and defensive lineman Richard Seymour.

Most players nearing the age of 30 who don’t have the initials T.B. are being shuffled out the door unless they agree to a contract offered on New England’s terms. Even a highly respected veteran like defensive lineman Vince Wilfork needed to agree to a restructured deal last offseason when he was coming off an Achilles tendon injury.

This calculated strategy has helped allow New England to keep its core players and have the flexibility to make blockbuster moves if so desired like the 2014 signing of Darrelle Revis. He will again be New England’s top offseason personnel priority.

The offseason additions of Revis and fellow cornerback Brandon Browner allowed New England to confidently play more press coverage that helped contain the opposition’s top two receiving targets. New England could then be more creative with the use of its front seven.

The Patriots have the option of keeping Revis, but it would require paying him a $20 million salary in 2015 with a cap hit of $25 million. While New England could make this work by restructuring or ditching veteran contracts, the ideal scenario would be signing Revis to a longer, more cap-friendly deal. The Patriots also could let Revis walk, but potentially losing him to a division rival like Buffalo or the New York Jets makes that an unappealing option.

The Revis negotiations will be more daunting than handling a modest list of pending free agents led by safety Devin McCourty, kicker Steven Gostkowski, guard Dan Connolly and running back Shane Vereen. McCourty and Gotskowski are prime candidates for the franchise tag provided New England can’t sign either to an extension. The Patriots have a slew of interior line options if Connolly leaves.

As for Vereen, he caught 11 passes against Seattle and is renowned for his versatility. But the Patriots consider running back a fungible position.

Just ask one-hit wonder Jonas Gray. He is a perfect example of how the pieces work in the monster that Belichick has built with draft picks from across the spectrum and castoffs from elsewhere.

There is no team whose game plans are more opponent- and personnel-specific, which was exemplified in New England’s two AFC playoff victories. The Patriots abandoned their ground attack against Baltimore and finished with only 14 rushing yards – the lowest postseason total by a winning squad in NFL history – only to respond the following week with Blount’s 148-yard, three-touchdown performance in a rout of Indianapolis.

Gray was inactive for all three of New England’s postseason games despite having pounded the Colts for 201 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a Week 11 victory. The former practice-squad player also was scratched for the following game.

Why? Gray didn’t follow the 2014 Patriots mantra of “Do Your Job.” He overslept and missed the Friday practice before a Week 12 matchup against Detroit. Gray then ceded his playing time to Blount, who was signed after being waived by Pittsburgh.

Professional responsibility is a must in New England, especially for low-level contributors like Gray. The hero of Super Bowl XLIX knows that first-hand.

Malcolm Butler wasn’t activated for the playoff win over the Ravens. But three weeks later, the undrafted rookie cornerback made the play that saved New England’s bacon by intercepting Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson at the goal-line in the closing seconds.

Butler’s ability to keep himself focused despite the disappointment of not dressing against Baltimore paid huge dividends.

“This organization has high standards,” Butler said. “They want you to do everything right. They want you to be disciplined.

“You’ve got to produce. That’s the key thing – being productive and someone who can contribute to the team and help out when it comes down to it.”

There’s also one more promising factor regarding New England’s 2015 outlook -- an omission that is as impossible to ignore as a 500-pound pink elephant wearing a tri-corner hat and minutemen outfit.

Belichick and Tom Brady.

The NFL’s most prolific head coach/quarterback combination has proven they remain on top of their game even after 15 seasons together. The duo’s next attempt at history will be winning an unprecedented fifth Lombardi Trophy.

“Tom is the guy that fights and competes until the end,” Belichick said last Monday in his post-Super Bowl news conference. “There’s no player I respect more for that than Tom. That’s been a great pillar of strength for our football team for the past decade and a half. I sincerely appreciate that.

“I’d say the same for a lot of players on this team too. This is a hard-working team. It’s a competitive team and we showed that.”

As the Patriots like to say, they finished the job. But with such a promising future, who could blame Belichick and Co. if they’re already pumped to get start work on next season?

-Alex Marvez and co-host Gil Brandt interviewed Malcolm Butler on SiriusXM NFL Radio 

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