Brandon Lloyd makes a big splash

Had you asked those who follow the New England Patriots what they thought of the team's free-agent moves before 8 p.m. ET Saturday, opinion polls probably wouldn't have been too favorable.

There were four players coming aboard from other teams who probably had some scrambling to answer the question, "Who?"
Jonathan Fanene ... Steve Gregory ... Anthony Gonzalez ... Trevor Scott.

Then there were four re-signings, mostly geared toward special teams. Not exactly the most exciting stuff.

Dan Connolly ... Niko Koutouvides ... Matthew Slater ... Tracy White.

But once word came down shortly after 8 p.m. ET that there was a new name to add to the list -- big-play receiver Brandon Lloyd -- the outlook was drastically altered. Lloyd is the playmaking receiver the offense has been missing, not to mention a big name, which always adds a layer of excitement for those following the team.

The addition of Lloyd was the exclamation point to the team's busy opening five-day stretch of free agency, from which one conclusion can be drawn: Bill Belichick isn't messing around.

And something tells us he's not done yet.

Don't be surprised if tight end Daniel Fells (Broncos) and/or safety LaRon Landry (Redskins) is the next to come aboard. Fells is scheduled to visit Monday, and Landry was in town Saturday. Who knows, maybe Belichick has a few other tricks up his hoodie sleeve, as the Patriots have been one of the NFL's most active teams in free agency.

Time will tell whether the signings are the right ones -- Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco looked like great moves last July but both fizzled -- yet at the least one can clearly see Belichick's intentions. Free agency has mostly been about strengthening the team's middle class -- players 20-40 on the 53-man roster -- and the way the Patriots have worked the market has mirrored the way Belichick's football teams often manage critical situations in games.

They've been smart, decisive at times, while showing patience and letting things come to them in other cases (e.g., Lloyd). They've also filled some key needs (defensive line, safety, receiver), which should give them flexibility heading into the draft in late April, a three-day stretch that will be more important than what unfolded the past five days.

No, the plan hasn't always gone as scripted. Belichick was hot on the trail of Seahawks defensive lineman Red Bryant (he returned to Seattle), and the club was in on receiver Reggie Wayne, who ultimately re-signed with the Colts. Yet Belichick adjusted accordingly each time.

What stands out with the Patriots' deals is that they limit their risk. Most of the contracts are shorter in length (three years maximum) and don't break the bank.

Compare that to some of the other contracts signed around the league -- Lloyd's reported three-year, $12 million pact versus Pierre Garcon's five-year, $42.5 million deal with the Redskins as one example -- and it highlights how the Patriots don't just seem to outperform teams on the field regularly. They outthink them in the front office as well.

So it appears to be a good start to free agency for the Patriots, but one question does remain: Will the totality of Belichick's moves this offseason be enough to turn the defense around more decisively?

Belichick has come up with a lot of answers in his 13 years as Patriots coach, but his work on defense the past five years, particularly with personnel, warrants some scrutiny (selecting just one defender in the first five rounds of the 2011 draft comes to mind). If the start of 2012 free agency is any indication -- Fanene is a high-motor defensive lineman; Gregory a heady, versatile safety; and Scott a situational pass-rusher -- Belichick isn't going to shy away from infusing the D with better talent this time around. Free agency has been a start, but more work is needed on that side of the ball.

As for the offense, there are still a few questions, but the addition of Lloyd just answered one of the biggest.

He's a difference-maker. He's their big splash.