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Sunday football notes

In free agency, Patriots prefer to pick their spots

Coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots are very cognizant of what bringing in a new player with a huge contract will do in the locker room.

Reuters/File

Coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots are very cognizant of what bringing in a new player with a huge contract will do in the locker room.

As with any team, there are some Patriots fans content with the direction the team has taken so far in free agency, and there are others who are frustrated.

Why didn’t they get Mario Williams?

Continue reading below

What about Vincent Jackson?

They couldn’t use a cornerback like Cortland Finnegan or Brandon Carr?

Sure, the Patriots could certainly use any of those players - and they finally got Brandon Lloyd, who no one else apparently wanted, in the fold Saturday - but they are among a handful of teams that consider a variety of factors when it comes to free agency.

And those teams just happen to win. A lot.

Just look at the teams that were in the past three Super Bowls. The Saints (to a lesser extent), Colts, Packers, Steelers, Giants, and Patriots all take a back seat in the first few days of free agency.

The quarterbacks they have don’t hurt, to be sure, but all of these teams believe that you build a team through the draft, and then you develop players. And once they become too expensive to retain, you let them walk and either fill with a developmental player or find a cheaper replacement through free agency.

The teams you see going headfirst into free agency are doing so because they have failed to build a sufficient core for a champion. So they’re trying to buy one. Or, in many cases, general managers are making final stabs at trying to build a winner so they can hang onto their jobs. Probably both. Inevitably, those teams end up failing for a couple of reasons.

For one, football is not baseball. You can’t just acquire a starting pitcher and stick him into the rotation. Football is about chemistry and schemes, and it often takes a while for everything to mesh.

The Eagles, who added a slew of players last season, didn’t fail just because of the lockout, though that didn’t help. It takes time for players to trust each other. It often takes months for a receiver and quarterback to achieve the type of precision needed in today’s game.

The rare exceptions are the Randy Mosses; you just tell them to run deep and they overwhelm the opponent physically.

In football, you need to play fast. For that to happen, you need to know the scheme, the checks and calls, like the back of your hand. Often these free agents are going into completely new schemes. That takes time.

Free agency can pay off - but usually in the second year.

Then there are the contracts. The cap is real. Unless you’re an idiot general manager.

Do you know why certain teams, such as the Cowboys and Redskins, always seem to add players no matter the cost? Because they push the money down the road. You can restructure any contract you want, but eventually that bill is going to come due and you’re going to have to cut players to get under the cap. Then you replace them again, and it becomes a vicious cycle in which players are coming and going and no sustainable program is built.

You know the surest sign that your team is in trouble with the cap? When it asks a high-priced veteran to restructure his contract. The player is getting paid the same amount of money, but the team is pushing the cap hurt down the line. But it will come.

Some teams prefer a “pay as you go’’ system. You pay little or no signing bonus but guarantee the first two years with large base salaries - those players aren’t going anywhere anyway - and then if it doesn’t work out, you don’t have pro-rated money exploding onto your cap down the road.

The Buccaneers, armed with a ton of cap space from having the league’s youngest roster, gave no signing bonuses to Jackson, cornerback Eric Wright, or guard Carl Nicks. They are set up for success now because their cap will remain clean.

The Patriots are still a little old school in their cap controls - they split the cap balance between a signing bonus and base salary - but it works because they give big new contracts to players who earn it and aren’t going to do anything that makes the team cut them down the line.

The Patriots are also very cognizant of what bringing in a new player with a huge contract will do in the locker room. Say the Patriots paid Williams an average of $15 million a year; what do you think Vince Wilfork would say about his $8 million average? And he has been here, won a lot of games, and proven a lot more than Williams.

Fans don’t want to hear it. They think the players should just deal with it for the sake of winning. Trust me, money is talked about a lot by the players across the league. They all know what everyone is making, how much of a workout bonus the player next to them is getting. If one is a slacker and getting paid more, the other isn’t going to be happy. It creates a bad work environment.

The Patriots have a plan and are sticking to it. They have a solid base on both sides of the ball. They have countless young players who had no offseason last year, and not much of one as rookies in 2010. Nate Solder, Nick McDonald, Marcus Cannon, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Love, Ron Brace, Jermaine Cunningham, Markell Carter, Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher, Devin McCourty, Sterling Moore, Sergio Brown, Ras-I Dowling, and Josh Barrett are all going to get valuable time in the program and should improve.

On defense, the Patriots have a solid group with starters at most positions. Between Andre Carter, Mark Anderson, or somebody else, they’ll have someone at that open-end position. They could use more than just Steve Gregory at safety next to Patrick Chung, and that could be LaRon Landry. Or it could be Barrett or Brown. And there’s always the draft.

The cornerbacks - McCourty, Dowling, Kyle Arrington, and Moore - are solid on paper. The Patriots certainly learned they need to build up the depth of this team, which was weakened by some draft misses. Right now they’re doing that by targeting certain players on the secondary market that have fallen through the cracks while other teams have thrown stupid money around.

Remember, this team was but a few plays away from winning the Super Bowl. Right now the Patriots are filling some of their weak spots and improving depth. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to do that.

The players they have signed - Lloyd, receiver Anthony Gonzalez, tackle Jonathan Fanene, linebacker Trevor Scott, and safety Steve Gregory - all have much to prove and weren’t sought-after free agents. Some might have a problem with that - “If they were any good, someone else would have wanted them’’ - but they shouldn’t.

They probably didn’t like Carter, Anderson, James Ihedigbo, and Brian Waters, either. Whomever the Patriots sign, they have a reason. Bill Belichick will find the good parts of that player that others may have missed, accentuate them, minimize the weaknesses, and meld a cohesive unit.

They’re being smart, which they’ve always been under Belichick. You don’t have to flash cash to show that. In fact, usually the opposite is true.

SUCCESS STORY

Waltham’s Bernadeau cashes in with Dallas

It has been a long road from Waltham High and Bentley, but local boy Mackenzy Bernadeau finally hit it big when he landed a four-year contract worth a reported $11 million from the Cowboys in the early stages of free agency.

“I’m excited, it’s a blessing,’’ said Bernadeau, who is 6 feet 4 inches, 308 pounds. “It’s a great team, a great organization. I met a couple of the players who were real cool, so I’m excited for it.

“I was looking for someplace I could play, compete for a starting spot, and have a chance to win. Any team that gave me that opportunity was a place I was comfortable with. Fortunately it worked out with Dallas.’’

Bernadeau was the first player from Bentley ever drafted when he was taken with the third-to-last pick (250th overall) in 2008 by the Panthers. He made the team as a rookie but didn’t play. In 2009, Bernadeau played in 16 games and started seven when Jordan Gross’s season-ending injury created an opening. Bernadeau started 12 games in 2010 but just one last season.

“Everything with the Panthers went really well,’’ he said. “I had a fair shot to compete and get starting jobs. I had some setbacks, minor injuries, but my four years with the Panthers were great and I don’t regret any of it. I learned a lot from the team.

“Unfortunately things didn’t work out between us but that’s the nature of the game, so it was just my time to go elsewhere.’’

Bernadeau expects to compete for a starting spot in Dallas at left guard. The Cowboys had trouble at all their interior line spots last season, and they also added Nate Livings from the Bengals to start at right guard.

Not bad for a Division 2 player.

“If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing,’’ Bernadeau said. “The road I traveled was different, a little difficult at times, but it was well worth it. Just a lot of hard work and dedication. It’s funny coming from a small school to the NFL, but it just goes to show that it’s possible, you know?’’

That’s the message that he’ll take back to Waltham High Monday when he talks to students.

“My biggest regret was when I was younger, I didn’t take sports seriously and focus in on sports and see how far it can get you - an education, into college and then the NFL,’’ Bernadeau said. “I was stubborn at the time, but it took a lot of coaches, from Waltham to Bentley, to tell me that I could do more.

“I’m just going to try to get that message across, show them my experience and what I’ve learned from it and how to take advantage of the opportunities they get in the future.’’

GOING CAMPING

Receiver plans to be a hands-on instructor

Since he was drafted by the Patriots in 1993, Troy Brown has been a part of the fabric of the team and the Boston sports community. But the three-time Super Bowl champion has never put his name on a football camp. Until now.

The first Troy Brown Football Camp will be held June 27-30 on the campus of Bridgewater State University.

“This is the first time I’m doing the camp and owning the camp and I’m really excited about it,’’ said Brown. “I’ve been wanting to do it for a while and just decided the timing was right. I had the time, the resources and the people to actually help me get this thing going.

“Just looking to give a lot of these kids a very good instructional camp on things to do and not to do. We’ll also tie in some lessons about how to stay out of trouble, how to become better athletes and how to be better people.’’

As opposed to some other athletes who just put their name on a camp and don’t instruct, Brown will be there every day imparting tips on how he became a member of the franchise’s 50th anniversary team at receiver.

“This is one of the reasons why I waited - I want to be there every day,’’ Brown said. “I know it’s going to a hard four days but I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to teaching and working with the kids. It should be fun.’’

Brown is expected to be joined by several current Patriots players and coaches, and top area college and high school coaches will be some of the instructors.

Students will receive six hours of training each day and can be part of the overnight camp ($599) or commute daily ($499). For more information, call (800) 515-3880, or visit Brown’s website, www.tb80.net.

ETC.

Penalties to Redskins, Cowboys raise a flag

The NFL’s decision to take away $36 million in salary cap space from the Redskins and $10 million from the Cowboys (the Saints and Raiders were also slapped on the wrist) just a day before free agency was startling and questionable.

League sources said the “fines’’ - which could be split over the next two seasons - were penalties for violating a league directive not to use the 2010 uncapped year to gain a competitive advantage by spending lavishly when there was no cap.

The league thought those two teams were blatant about it and it took the matter seriously enough that it considered taking away draft picks, but commissioner Roger Goodell ultimately decided against that.

But it sure seems that the decision to penalize the four teams was in violation of the previous collective bargaining agreement that set up the rules - basically there were no rules - for the uncapped year.

The NFL came to a gentleman’s agreement not to dump contracts, even though it technically could.

Sure sounds like collusion to us, and something the Players Association would have a problem with. Except that the players’ union agreed to it, according to multiple league sources that confirmed a report by profootballtalk.com.

Why?

Because when the calculations were made to set this year’s salary cap - it’s a hard formula based on revenue - the cap actually came out about $4 million less than the 2011 number.

That would be a big problem for NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, who just happens to be up for re-election later this month.

In exchange for not fighting the league’s salary-cap penalties - the NFLPA still has not commented on it - the salary cap increased $225,000 to allow Smith to save face in front of the executive committee members who will determine whether or not he should stay on the job.

Nickel package

1. The megadeal handed to defensive end Mario Williams by the Bills was not only needed to make the team relevant again, but just about mandatory for new defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt to get his scheme to work. It’s predicated on the four linemen getting pressure in the pass game and occupying blockers against the run. Williams and Chris Kelsay will be the ends, alongside tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. Shawne Merriman will be a situational pass rusher. Wannstedt doesn’t blitz much, so those guys are going to have to win a lot of one-on-one battles. They have the talent to do that now.

2. Nice work by the 49ers to keep their interest in Peyton Manning secret until the very end. And Manning’s decision could have an impact on his legacy. How does he not pick the 49ers, a team that has all the pieces in place for a Super Bowl run? The Broncos and Titans are down a level - solid teams, but not on a championship level. If Manning wants to be a champion again, he should pick the 49ers. If he doesn’t, what does that say about him?

3. When is Mark Sanchez going to learn that if you have to talk about leadership, you have a lot to learn about it? Just zip it, put your head down, and lead by example.

4. How do Bengals fans not boycott the team? They have about $50 million in cap space, just signed their first player (guard Travelle Wharton) Saturday, and four of their players have signed elsewhere after getting lowball offers from Cincinnati. The league penalized the Redskins and Cowboys for spending too much money. How about the league takes half the Bengals’ cap space and refunds it to season ticket-holders?

5. I expect the Patriots to sign a starting safety, end, and backup veteran running back and essentially be done with free agency. After that, they’ll look for value at backup tight end, inside linebacker, and perhaps cornerback and guard, though all of that could be addressed in the draft.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.
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