All Roads Lead to FoxFoxborough The text messages from free-agent wide receiver Donte' Stallworth to his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, began enthusiastically on the first night of his visit to New England, after Patriots quarterback Tom Brady happened by Stallworth's table at a Boston restaurant on March 5 to preach the team's gospel. By the next day, as Stallworth was meeting in Foxborough with Pats officials, the texts to Rosenhaus revealed a man whose mind was made up. I want to be here. Let's get it done. I don't want to leave here without a contract.
It should surprise no one that prime free agents would want to join a franchise that has won three of the past six Super Bowls. What is unusual is that they'd take less money to play for one with so much salary-cap room. And it's stranger still to see the Patriots playing the free-agency game as aggressively as coach Bill Belichick plays defense. In their eight years of team-building, Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli have mostly been bargain-basement shoppers: The 20 free agents who formed the bedrock of the first championship team (such as linebacker Mike Vrabel) came from the lower and middle echelons.
But in the first 11 days of free agency this year the Pats signed five players off other rosters, including Stallworth, the Philadelphia Eagles long-ball threat, and linebacker Adalius Thomas of the Baltimore Ravens, the best linebacker on the market; traded for the Miami Dolphins' productive receiver-return man Wes Welker; re-signed three of their own free agents; and placed the franchise tag on cornerback Asante Samuel, all but assuring that the 2006 NFL coleader in interceptions (10) will be in New England for at least one more season. "I'm stunned," says a rival scout. "But it just goes to show you -- anytime you think you've got the Patriots figured out, they go and do something no one expects."
New England's flurry of activity doesn't signify a shift in philosophy. Rather it was the result of a perfect storm of team needs, available players, available cash ($23 million under a salary cap of $109 million) and a more conservative approach by teams such as the New York Giants and Jets, the Green Bay Packers and the Carolina Panthers that are usually aggressive bidders. "Believe me, we've made a lot of calls the first day of free agency every year," Belichick said last Friday. "This year was just different. We pursued guys we needed, and they wanted to come."
Belichick's linebacking corps looked old and slow when the Indianapolis Colts racked up 32 points and 311 yards in the second half of the Pats' AFC title-game loss. So they signed Thomas to a five-year deal at an average of $7 million a year, the same salary that three guards received in this off-season of NFL largesse. The 6'2", 270-pound Thomas is so versatile -- with Baltimore he could line up on the D-line and even in the secondary -- that some teams feared he might be less productive strictly as a linebacker. "We change what we do lots of weeks," Belichick says. "We're a game-plan team. For us, a player can't have too much versatility. We'll find a way to use him."
The San Francisco 49ers would have paid Thomas at least $1 million more per season, but his family didn't want to move to California -- and the seven-year vet had his own priorities. "The money wasn't going to make my decision," says Thomas, who had a career-high 11 sacks in '06. "Having a chance to win every year in a good place, with a coach and organization I can trust, those were the important things."
The Patriots ended last season with Jabar Gaffney, Reche Caldwell and Troy Brown as their top three wideouts; they'll most likely start Stallworth and Welker in '07 and bring another free-agent signee, Kelley Washington of the Cincinnati Bengals, off the bench. New England traded a second- and seventh-round pick for Welker, who last year accomplished the exceedingly rare trifecta of leading his team in receptions (67, for 687 yards), punt returns (9.2 yards per attempt) and kickoff returns (22.2). "We've played against him twice a year, and he's killed us every game," Belichick says. "We couldn't cover him."
Stallworth, who averaged 19.1 yards per catch in '06, gives Brady his best deep threat ever. Pioli also built some insurance into the contract in case Stallworth is sidelined by off-field problems. (The Philadelphia Inquirer reported earlier this month that he was in the league's substance-abuse program and could be subject to a suspension for a subsequent violation.) Stallworth is slated to receive $3.6 million this year, but $1.6 million of that will come in roster bonuses of $100,000 per game; if the Patriots retain him for 2008, it triggers a longer-term deal with an $8 million bonus. The Dolphins and the Titans were both pursuing Stallworth, "but he wanted to play with Tom Brady," says Titans coach Jeff Fisher. "Who can blame him?"
With 2006 first-round pick Laurence Maroney ready to become a 300-carry-a-season running back, New England waived Corey Dillon and signed a better blocker and special teams player, [n]Sammy Morris[/b], from the Dolphins. And while their good, young blocking tight end Daniel Graham got $6 million a year from the Denver Broncos in free agency, the Pats signed a good, old blocking tight end, Kyle Brady of the Jacksonville Jaguars, for less than half that, $2.8 million a year.
Of course, projecting whether big-name free agents will improve a team is risky business. The Washington Redskins, Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings were the biggest movers in the market last year, signing presumed impact players such as receiver Antwaan Randle El (Washington), center LeCharles Bentley (Cleveland) and guard Steve Hutchinson (Minnesota). But all three teams went backward -- from a combined 25-23 in 2005 to 15-33 in '06. "I hope what we've done translates to the field," says Patriots owner Robert Kraft. "But you never know. Four years ago we had a major signing in [linebacker] Rosevelt Colvin, and he hurt his hip in the second game of the season and missed most of the year."
If New England has spent wisely, the AFC's balance of power could shift. At the end of last season the Colts, Patriots and Chargers were 1A, 1B and 1C in the conference -- the Pats just as easily could have lost the divisional playoff game in San Diego or won the conference title showdown at Indy. The Chargers, aside from re-signing top guard Kris Dielman, have been all but inactive during free agency. The Super Bowl champion Colts lost two of their best defenders, cornerback Nick Harper (to Tennessee) and linebacker Cato June (to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), plus running back Dominic Rhodes (to the Oakland Raiders), and have added no one. True, Chargers stars LaDainian Tomlinson and Shawne Merriman haven't left, nor has Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. But given the razor-thin margins between the AFC's elite clubs, New England might have edged ahead.
The Patriots were back in the business of managing expectations last weekend, having shifted their focus from free agency to the draft. "They don't hand out any trophies in the NFL for what you do in March or April," Pioli said. Speaking of which, guess which NFL team is the only one with two first-round choices on April 28.
In New England, the rich don't just get richer. They get smarter.
Agree with Mr. Blitz completely. Pending injuries, there is no reason why they shouldn't win the SB (okay, maybe I exageratted) this year, with Brady and Bellichek in addition to tons of other great players.