Friday, February 27, 2009

Double whammy

Friday saw the Patriots gain an icon and lose another.

The start of free agency didn't take long to prove fruitful for New England, which added star running back Fred Taylor, but then turned around and dealt fan favorite and eight-year Patriot Mike Vrabel to Kansas City (get used to hearing the Chiefs in negotiations).

Though a dip into the free agent pool was peculiar for a team facing the salary cap problems that New England is, Taylor is a smart addition. The 16th all-time leading rusher, Taylor has defined the word 'consistent' throughout his career with Jacksonville, and will be in the running for a bust in Canton when his career finishes up.

Taylor will also provide depth to a running back corps that was riddled with injuries in 2008. Laurence Maroney lasted only four games before landing on IR, while LaMont Jordan and Sammy Morris both missed substantial time with injuries, forcing Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis to take on starting roles. Taylor will certainly help create a deep backfield that preserves the health of its members.

But while the offense gained another weapon, the defense lost one. In 24 hours, the Patriots went from potentially gaining an impact defender (DeAngelo Hall, who re-signed with Washington) to actually losing one in Vrabel.

From a depth chart point of view, Vrabel's trade (for an undisclosed draft pick) is understandable, as the team is looking to cut salary, and linebacker is the deepest defensive position.

It makes financial sense as well, as Vrabel's contract was set to expire in 2009, and the trade takes another deal off the books that the Patriots would have had to spend valuable dollars and cap space to renew.

Furthermore, the $3 million-plus that is now off the roster frees the Patriots to make another run at another impact player, via free agency and trade. With Julius Peppers mentioned in various rumors, an essential Vrabel-for-Peppers swap would benefit New England greatly.

Emotionally, however, this deal makes little sense at all. Vrabel was still an effective defensive player, was the team's best pass rusher, and was a leader in the huddle and in the locker room. While Tedy Bruschi was the symbol of New England's grit, determination and heart, Vrabel was easily 1A, a guy who went from being a cut Pittsburgh Steeler to being Mr. Versatility with three Super Bowl winners.

So day 1 of free agency gives the Patriots a former Pro Bowl running back, and deprives them of a former Pro Bowl linebacker. With plenty of players remaining in the market, these seismic moves could very well be joined in the next few days.

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