Patriots' signs usually point nowhere

Ask many around the NFL about the New England Patriots and free agency, and the reputation is that they are a team that avoids the big splash. They are value spenders.

When the heat gets turned up on other NFL clubs for not being more aggressive in free agency, they sometimes point to the Patriots as a model they are following.

Really, though, that perception is not entirely true.

In 2003, the Patriots spent big for linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. They did it again in 2007 with linebacker Adalius Thomas.

So when free agency starts at 4 p.m. ET Tuesday, would it be shocking if the Patriots begin to explore the possibility of reeling one of the biggest fish in the free-agent pond, a defensive difference-maker such as Mario Williams?

Not at all. That's not to say it will happen, but it highlights how in Bill Belichick's 12 years in charge of the Patriots' football operation, he has been anything but predictable in free agency. That's how he likes it.

Some years he's flying in veteran receiver Derrick Mason under the radar on the opening day of free agency (2005). Other years he's waited a few days, and sometimes weeks, to make his first move.

This year, here is what we know for sure about the Patriots entering free agency: They have about $16 million in salary cap space after the expected tendering of restricted free agent quarterback Brian Hoyer, which gives them what they generally covet at this time of year -- flexibility.

Furthermore, the team has 17 players with contracts that officially expire at 4 p.m. Over the past week, the Patriots have engaged in contract talks with some of them in hopes of striking deals before free agency begins (e.g. offensive lineman Dan Connolly, safety James Ihedigbo, special teams captain Matthew Slater). With others, the expectation is that the players will head to the market while keeping an open dialogue about a possible return (e.g. running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis), while others are anticipating a fresh start elsewhere (e.g. linebacker Gary Guyton, cornerback Antwaun Molden).

The 17-player class has some solid players but no superstars, so overall, the Patriots look to be in solid position.

Also of note is that the start of the new league year often marks an opening for teams to part ways with players and have it benefit them from a salary cap standpoint. What does that mean for disappointing receiver Chad Ochocinco? The team reportedly approached Ochocinco about restructuring his contract last month. Is he salvageable? The team's answer to that question could be coming soon with the league year set to begin.

When things go right for the Patriots in free agency, they generally plug specific holes that help provide flexibility entering the draft. Ideally, the club doesn't want to be tied to one position entering April's draft, and that's where free agency can be the biggest help -- finding complementary pieces.

The biggest holes on the current roster look to be at safety, defensive line and receiver. When building the team, it also helps to know the areas in which the draft is considered weaker (e.g. safety), as that could lead to a more aggressive free-agent approach at that spot.

Looking back, the Patriots have had years when things looked good on paper in free agency, but they soon fizzled. The 2009 free-agent crop comes to mind, with Chris Baker (tight end), Fred Taylor (running back), Shawn Springs (cornerback) and Joey Galloway (receiver) never panning out.

If there was a lesson to be learned that year, it's that sometimes veterans are so set in their ways they don't adjust to a new environment (Taylor's issue was more injury related). Drafting and developing players gives a team a better chance of getting those desired results because the player arrives at a more impressionable time in his career.

The flip side of that was 2001 free agency with linebackers Brian Cox, Larry Izzo, Roman Phifer and Mike Vrabel, defensive lineman Anthony Pleasant, running back Antowain Smith and receiver David Patten. Those types of years don't come around often.

Where it all leads this year for the Patriots is probably somewhere in the middle, similar to last year when they stayed out of some of the early spending spree and found solid value later in the process.

Their four best signings were offensive lineman Brian Waters (Sept. 4), safety James Ihedigbo (Aug. 19) and defensive linemen Andre Carter (Aug. 8) and Mark Anderson (Aug. 5).

That's a good reminder for those who might be disappointed if the Patriots don't come charging right out of the free-agent box.

Then again, with the unpredictable Belichick, anything is in play.