The New England Patriots enter the free agency market on Tuesday afternoon (once this bizarre “legal tampering” period ends) flush with cash following some prudent decisions, cap space carryover, and quarterback Tom Brady extending and restructuring his contract to provide cap space. Patriots fans have nestled all snug in their beds with visions of sugar plums, Mike Wallace, Ed Reed, James Harrison, Dwight Freeney, and Greg Jennings dancing in their heads. Unfortunately, the Patriots have famously eschewed the big dip into expensive free-agent signings and instead focused solely on finding “value”.
A look at the Patriots roster shows the Bill Belichick blueprint in all its glory: A very small upper-class of $10 million cap hits consisting of quarterback Tom Brady, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, and guard Logan Mankins, a moderate middle-class of 15 players between $1.5 and $5.5 million cap hits (soon to likely be losing wide receiver Brandon Lloyd from that middle class), and a large group of small cap number players (under $1.5 million cap hit) knowing and filling their roles. With three potential $6 to $10 million a year cap hit players from the Patriots on the open market in cornerback Aqib Talib, tackle Sebastian Vollmer, and wide receiver Wes Welker, the Patriots are likely hoping that the market moves these three down to a more team-friendly value rather than top of the market prices.
With approximately $25 million in cap space available this off-season, don’t look to the Patriots to break from their long-term plan of roster flexibility by spending the cap money on one or two big name free agents to join their small upper-class stars. Instead, expect to see the Patriots allow the big names to go to the highest bidders and then start looking for “value”. As fans think about big-name big-play weapons on offense and aging superstars on defense, coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft are likely thinking about $4 million in dead money that the team is unable to spend due to the cap hits of the contracts of former defensive tackle Jon Fanene and wide receiver Chad Ochocinco.
The Patriots, if they have a free agent with mutual interest in coming to New England at a cap-friendly deal, will spend SOME money on impact players. Their own free agents–Talib, Welker, Vollmer, Danny Woodhead, Kyle Arrington, and Julian Edelman– are looking to make as much money as they can in free agency, as they have earned the right to do so by playing out their contracts and their agents will makes sure they maximize their opportunity. The Patriots seem comfortable to let these players go to free agency and let the market determine their price tag and see if they come back to the Patriots at the cost they have given the players’ agents.
Odds are that at least one of the Patriots’ Big Three free agents will not break the bank in free agency and come back to New England. However, the Patriots have free agency, the draft, undrafted free agents, and training camp cut-downs to obtain players before the regular season starts in September. History in the Bill Belichick era indicates that all of these avenues will be utilized to build a team that is expected to win the AFC East, challenge for a top seed and a bye, and get to and win the Super Bowl.
Expect the Patriots front office to ignore the pricey free agents on the market and focus on adding players who may be undervalued due to age, injury, or playing in a scheme not maximizing their talents. After the debacle of linebacker Adalius Thomas and defensive tackle Jon Fanene, the Patriots are more likely to be looking for Mark Anderson and Andre Carter type players, not wide receiver Greg Jennings or defensive end Cliff Avril at their top of market prices.
The best additions to the defense last season were defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower. These players were added in the first round of the draft at reasonable prices for an extended period of time. Finding impact players at reasonable cost is best done through the draft, and the Patriots should continue to be aggressive trading up to get the best players available now that there is finally a rookie salary cap to control player cost.
The Patriots may not come out on the opening night of free agency and get an A+ snap decision for free agency like other franchises may well do; however, with past Patriots history as a guide, the Patriots will stick to their on-going team-building vision, and continue to wait for the prices to drop and add “value”. It is not flashy; It does not lead to a rush to the box office (which this team has no worries about); and it does not win the public relations battle; but come September the team goes out between the numbers and produces victories. It may be frustrating as a fan to watch the Patriots deliberate, value-add emphasis plan, but they have found a lot of value in being patient and looking for value in free agency. Expect more of the same this season.