ORLANDO — In talking with their former coaches, it’s pretty easy to see why the Patriots signed cornerback Brandon Browner and receiver Brandon LaFell in free agency this month.
The two players not only fill important needs, but have “The Patriot Way” written all over them.
Browner, who stands 6 feet 4 inches and 220 pounds, gives the Patriots the size and physicality they sorely need in the secondary to keep pace with the Broncos and other top passing teams. The Patriots will face Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler, Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Reggie Wayne, and Brandon Marshall in the 2014 season, and Browner gives them a big-bodied cornerback who can play press-man coverage and slow down the big, physical receivers.
“He’s a very unique football player,” said Pete Carroll, Browner’s coach in Seattle the last three years. “He’s got a great sense for the position and he’s tough, a really tough dude. I talked to Bill [Belichick] about it yesterday, we were kicking it around a bit. I’m envious he gets to coach that guy. He’s a fantastic football player.”
So why didn’t Carroll try to bring Browner back to Seattle? For one thing, Browner probably needed a fresh start after earning an indefinite drug suspension last season, which was eventually bumped down to a four-game suspension and four games without pay next season.
And the Seahawks also have a good, young, cheap option in fourth-year cornerback Byron Maxwell, who played well in Browner’s place last year with four interceptions, and has a salary of just $645,000 in 2014.
Browner signed a three-year deal worth $15.15 million with New England, according to a copy of his contract obtained by the Globe, with a 2014 salary cap number of $2.95 million and the potential to make $4.33 million in cash next season when factoring in his financial penalties, roster bonuses, and playing-time incentives.
Browner will also have $2 million in roster bonuses due on the first day of the 2015 and 2016 league years, and base salaries of $1.9 million each season. But only his $1 million base salary this year is fully guaranteed.
Still, Carroll is sad to see Browner go.
“They’re getting a terrific football player,” he said. “He is a great competitor, fierce competitor, and when he finally gets back to playing, I know he’ll work out really hard to get ready and all of that, and he’ll show them why he was part of a really good secondary.”
LaFell, meanwhile, gives the Patriots the versatility they crave. While he never put up tremendous stats in his four years in Carolina — he never had more than 677 yards or five touchdowns — Panthers coach Ron Rivera highlighted LaFell’s ability to play several positions. LaFell might even be used as a replacement for former tight end Aaron Hernandez in some spots.
“Very intelligent football player. He really is,” said Rivera. “He’ll know all the wide receiver positions for you guys. He played all of our wide receiver positions, plus he knew the tight end position.
“If we ever got in a situation in a passing down where something happened to Greg Olsen, he could go in and play the Y for us, which meant he either had to block, check-release, or go into routes immediately, so he’s a very smart guy.”
Rivera also raved about LaFell’s physicality and willingness to block. LaFell is coming from a run-first offense in Carolina, and knows how to stick his nose into the run game.
“I love his tenacity,” Rivera said. “He’s a want-to blocker: He won’t block because he has to, he’ll block because he wants to, and I think that’s impressive.”
LaFell signed for $9 million over three seasons with $3 million guaranteed, and the Panthers, who have a tight salary cap situation, opted to let him leave and find better value at wide receiver. But Rivera said LaFell will be a good fit for the Patriots and provide a big target when he lines up in the slot.
“He isn’t a fast, quick-twitch, elusive guy, but he presents a good target,” Rivera said. “They’ll probably play him as a Z in their base personnel group, or if they do use him as a slot, they’ll motion him down in and use him to crack as far as the running game is concerned.
“The way they do things, it’s going to work well for them, and I think Brandon will have some success.”
It was also interesting to hear San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh speak highly of receiver Julian Edelman, who visited the 49ers before re-signing a four-year, $17 million deal with New England.
“It was really an honor to meet him,” Harbaugh said. “What a classy young man. He’s got a great situation in New England.”
Harbaugh said he was impressed with Edelman’s ability to describe his transition from a college quarterback at Kent State to a wide receiver and punt returner with the Patriots. Edelman had only 69 catches for 714 yards and four touchdowns in his first four NFL seasons combined, but had 105 catches for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns last year.
“His understanding of football, where he is now as a player compared to where he was as a rookie, really resonated with me,” Harbaugh said. “Just how tough it is going from college to pro, trying to now defeat press coverage, to then get back to where your spot is, where you’re supposed to be in the route, then thinking about catching the football, and just how difficult it is, and that understanding and putting it all together doesn’t really happen until year three or four.
“It was very enlightening to me. I never had it explained so clearly to me as the way he did it.”Follow Ben Volin on Twitter at @BenVolin.