Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Countdown to Camp 2010: Free Agents

The Patriots only had a mediocre free agency class.  No block-buster signings, and no creative trades.  And like most teams, they treated this off-season as if it had a salary cap when it did not, so they missed a chance to reload now for the next five years.

However, they kept their eyes on the prize and did the workman-like things that will keep them contenders for the foreseeable future.  Here are the unsexy moves they made to continue building on their success.

1.  They re-signed their important free agents.

This is an underrated and under appreciated part of free agency.  But when you are a very good or great team, it's usually more important to bring back your most important free agents than to make a splash with big name players from other teams.  The Pats signed four of their top five free agents, three on defense and one special teamer.

On defense, they brought back Vince Wilfork, Tully Banta-Cain, and Leigh Bodden.  In order, that was their best defensive lineman, best linebacker, and best defensive back from a year ago.  When free agency started, there was a lot of concern that their defense would be devastated if they lost two of those three players.  Well, they rolled up their sleeves and all three will play for the Patriots this year.

Everyone agrees that Wilfork is the perfect nose tackle to anchor the 3-4.  If he walked, the Pats had no viable replacement, so he was the most important signing of the off-season.  Banta-Cain showcased the ability to run down plays from behind and hold the edge against the run, both crucial skills for an OLB in the 3-4.  And Bodden was a reclamation project from Detroit, having never gotten to the playoffs with the perennially bad Lions.  All he did was tie for the team lead in interceptions and pick up the defense quickly enough to start 14 games.

The special teams free agent was kicker Stephen Gostkowski.  He might never get out of Adam Vinatieri's shadow here, but he is a solid kicker with a better career field goal percentage than Vinatieri and much longer kickoffs than Adam ever had.

The Patriots did lose one significant free agent, Jarvis Green bolted for the Denver Broncos.  And they also brought back other free agents (Stephen Neal and Kevin Faulk, for example).  But none of those player moves carry the significance of Wilfork, Banta-Cain, Bodden, and Gostkowski.

2.  They signed complimentary players to fill in crucial gaps.

Remember how Torry Holt torched the Patriots in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXXVI, and seemingly every time he played against New England?  Well, now he'll be in the slot to start the season for the Patriots, filling in for Wes Welker as he returns from knee surgery, and perhaps teaching the young Pats receivers a thing or two about route running and getting separation.

As I wrote a few months back, Alge Crumpler will help with both of those things, too (link).  This is especially true with young tight ends in the fold and all of last year's tight ends gone.

And for good measure, they brought back David Patten, who knows the offense and will be a good outlet receiver when he's on the field.

None of these signings were earth-shattering, but all are low risk and Holt and Crumpler have the potential to be big pluses for the team.

3.  They cleared out some dead weight.

Adalius Thomas had worn out his welcome, having delivered 1.5 decent years and a lot of lack-luster performances beyond that.  He is joined by Chris Hanson, who couldn't out-punt *me*,  Chris Baker, who was better in the pre-season than the regular season, and Ben Watson, who never fulfilled the promise of his lofty draft position all those years ago.

I sort of wish they'd let Derrick Burgess go, too, but they must have plans for him since they brought him back for at least another year.  And I kind of wanted them to keep Shawn Springs, but with all the young talent in the secondary he was likely a goner anyway.

4.  They didn't lose ground to their competition.
In the AFC East, the Jets significantly weakened themselves at running back and cut one of their best O-linemen.  Their big improvement on defense is a cornerback with a sketchy reputation, and he replaces one who started on the best defense in the league last year.  The Dolphins lost as much as they gained on defense, and risked pretty much everything on WR Brandon Marshall.  But they gave him a long-term contract, which was a mistake if they want the maximum out of him this year.

As for the perennial AFC powers, the Steelers, Colts, and Chargers were characteristically quiet during free agency, choosing to re-sign their own players first, as the Patriots did.  The only AFC playoff team that improved itself significantly is the Baltimore Ravens, who brought in two good receivers (Donte Stallworth and Anquan Boldin) to go for it all before their aging defense gets too old.

Some might disagree with my assessment of the off-season, but please don't give me the overused line about how the Patriots are far behind these teams and have a lot of ground to make up.  The Pats were two plays away from being 12-4 last year (a Laurence Maroney fumble cost them the Colts game, and a terrible Brady pick cost them the second Miami game).  And if they had anything to play for the last week of the season, they could easily have gone 13-3.
The Jets and Dolphins are not close to the Patriots, and the Steelers, Colts, and Ravens are about on par with them.  So the Pats took action to remain competitive.  I wish they'd taken bold action to get much better than the other teams, but I don't run the team, so no use worrying about it now.  The only uncapped free agency we'll probably ever see is in the books, and the Pats gained some ground and most important of all, didn't lose any.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

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