Retention and complementary pieces has been the theme of the Patriots’ activity in free agency this offseason.
Retention and complementary pieces, however, don’t generate much buzz and excitement despite countless reminders over the years that it’s often the best approach.
This is what comes to mind when stepping back and assessing the Patriots’ moves since the market officially opened March 12.
We seem to live in two in-the-moment extremes when it comes to free agency – excitement over big-money, big-name signings or despair over big-money, big-name defections. The best example of this over the last few weeks has been the fan reaction surrounding the defending champion Baltimore Ravens.
Such external volatility is commonplace among media types and fans, but from having reported on and studied the Patriots’ approach since Bill Belichick's arrival in 2000, it hardly reflects how they view things from an internal perspective. There is a certain steadiness to their approach, and each free-agent period has its own dynamic.
The 2013 free-agent period has been different from recent years because the Patriots had three top-rated players (Aqib Talib, Wes Welker, Sebastian Vollmer) set to hit the open market and in line for a pay bump. When analysts listed the top free agents available, the Patriots were one of the only clubs with three players among what was widely considered the elite group. The theme was repeated on various sites – SI.com, CBSSports.com, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and NFL.com, among others.
Contrast that to 2012, when the top non-franchise-tagged Patriots free agents to hit the market were running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and defensive ends Mark Anderson and Andre Carter, and it highlights why 2013 has been mostly about retention in New England.
This dynamic brings back memories of a long-ago conversation with former Patriots vice president of personnel Scott Pioli. It was the 2009 offseason and Pioli was curious why some media members weren’t acknowledging defensive lineman Ty Warren, whose rookie deal was scheduled to expire at that time, as a crucial re-signing that year.
I explained to him that Warren wasn’t counted in our “grading” and analysis because he had extended his contract during the 2007 regular season. Yes, he would have been a free-agent in 2009, but the team took care of that business in 2007.
“So if we had waited and extended him in 2009, you’d look at what we did in 2009 differently?” he asked.
The exchange highlighted the differences between the internal and external perspectives on team-building. The club views things as a continuous process. Media members and fans often look at the present snapshot and make judgments based on that.
If we were to spin all this forward, the same Ty Warren-type story could be told with linebacker Jerod Mayo, who would have been a top free agent had he not signed a contract extension during the 2011 regular season. Why isn’t Mayo mentioned more when it comes to key Patriots re-signings this offseason? The answer: Because we often only judge what’s in front of us and sometimes miss the overall context of what goes in to building a team.
Between Mayo, Talib and Vollmer, the Patriots have done a nice job retaining a big part of their core this offseason, while the Welker defection remains a darker cloud over their activity. Can Danny Amendola help fill that void? There will be few, if any NFL players, with a larger spotlight shining on them in 2013. It’s similar in Baltimore, where 2011 fourth-round draft choice Tandon Doss might be called upon to fill Anquan Boldin’s absence.
As for what’s ahead, the Patriots know they have more moves to make, with receiver and pass-rusher two of the notable items on the to-do list. Those are coming, no doubt, whether it’s in free agency or the draft.
Externally, we want those moves now as we judge on an hour-to-hour basis, balancing the see-saw of extremes between big-money, big-name signings and free-agent defections. Internally, the Patriots will continue with their steady approach that has produced more victories than any NFL team over the last decade.
It is two worlds colliding, and they seem to grow farther apart every year.