It’s always treacherous trying to guess what is taking place inside the brain of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. There is a method to his genius. He’s just generally as interested in sharing it as he is his ATM PIN number.
Belichick is the master of furtive football dealings, obfuscatory answers, and meeting inquiries with icy glares. He likes to leave the competition guessing about his motives and methodology in constructing a game plan and a roster. So, we’re left to fill in the Belichick blanks for the overarching vision that has guided a very active Patriots offseason.
Belichick is always looking ahead, and that means the new arrivals are directly tied to potential departures. The Patriots are going for it this offseason because of the number of valuable players who could be moving out of Fort Foxborough following the 2016 season. The influx of veteran talent this offseason is designed to augment and capitalize on the collection of talent Belichick has curated, while he still has it.
In a salary cap league, it’s impossible to prevent defections. The Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos have learned this the hard way.
The Patriots’ 2017 free agent class is a distinguished and daunting one; some of these guys are bound to become ex-Pats next year. (The Patriots already dealt pending free agent Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals.) But before they go their separate ways, they could separate Belichick and Tom Brady in the NFL annals by helping to win a fifth Super Bowl.
The Big Three of the free agent class are game-changing linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins and cornerback Malcolm Butler, a restricted free agent. But key defensive contributors Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, Logan Ryan, and Duron Harmon also are unrestricted free agents.
Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is a UFA, as is special teams captain and Pro Bowler Matthew Slater.
The free agent roll call includes trusted role players, too: defensive tackles Alan Branch and Chris Jones, fullback James Develin, and running back Brandon Bolden.
The list doesn’t include starting wide receiver Danny Amendola, who is due to carry a $7.87 million cap hit and $6 million base salary in 2017. At those numbers, Amendola likely will have to run a go route to make room to re-sign the Class of ’17.
Having this much talent to retain is, as they say, a high-class problem for the Hoodie.
The Patriots have reached a point where anything short of lifting the Lombardi Trophy feels like a letdown. The team plays a zero-sum season.
We’re football snobs, thanks to a decade and a half of NFL eminence.
The Patriots have appeared in five straight AFC title games. They have won 12 or more games six years in a row. They have won seven straight AFC East division titles. They have recorded double-digit victories in 13 consecutive seasons. They have posted a winning record for 15 straight seasons.
But the most important number is 7, as in the 7 pounds of sterling silver known as the Lombardi Trophy.
If renting tight end Martellus Bennett for one season at a cost of $5.185 million can put that trophy back in Belichick’s hands, it’s worth it. Plunking down up to $4.55 million for nose tackle Terrance Knighton, who caved in the Patriots’ offensive line in the 2013 AFC title game in Denver, is a sound investment. The same goes for signing defensive end Chris Long to a one-year deal worth as much as $2.5 million.
The idea of being “all in” for a particular season is anathema to the Patriots. It doesn’t build mystique or lore or get tagged as a capital “W” way of winning.
It’s not part of the lexicon at Patriot Place. The Patriots build teams to add to their trophy haul with the long haul in mind.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft said as much at Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014, dismissing the idea of teams that load up, like Denver.
“You can gear up, [but] I think a better strategy is to try to be solid and compete year in and year out,” Kraft told 98.5 the Sports Hub.
But there are certain seasons where it makes sense to load up; 2007 was one of those seasons, 2014 was one of those seasons, and 2016 is shaping up as one as well.
Brady will turn 39 in August. He remains near the peak of his powers. It would be foolish to waste another season of arguably the greatest quarterback of all time based on a rigid philosophy.
The Patriots have no first-round pick in this month’s NFL Draft because of the Deflategate punishment. This lessens the chance of having a rookie immediately address one of their needs.
Speaking of Deflategate, forcing commissioner Roger Goodell to hand you the trophy in Houston would make a bigger point than the voluminous Wells Report in Context ever could.
Stacking the deck for 2016 doesn’t really affect the Patriots long term.
The only major contract commitments the Patriots took on this offseason were wide receiver Chris Hogan and linebacker Shea McClellin.
The team overpaid for both based on their careers thus far, but neither deal is a back-breaker if the players don’t meet projections.
McClellin got a three-year, $8.05 million deal that could be worth $9.25 million if he reaches his cumulative per-game roster bonus total of $400,000 each season.
Hogan cashed in on an inflated wide receiver market with a three-year, $12 million deal, including $7.5 million guaranteed.
Belichick makes few people privy to his roster rationale. But he has an economics degree, so he is familiar with the concept of opportunity cost.
Not taking advantage of a loaded roster while it remains intact is an opportunity Belichick and the Patriots simply can’t afford to pass up.
It doesn’t take football genius to figure that out.