FOXBOROUGH — As the 2017 season hits its crucial stretch, the Patriots are reinforcing their reputation as the Lady Liberty of the NFL.
“Give us your tired, your poor, your disgruntled veterans yearning to breathe free.”
James Harrison is just the latest veteran to complain his way off of one team and onto the Patriots.
The trend started in 2014, when LeGarrette Blount pouted his way out of Pittsburgh, rejoined the Patriots in November, and won a Super Bowl.
Last year, the Patriots took on talented receiver Michael Floyd, who was released by the Cardinals after a drunk driving arrest that eventually resulted in jail time.
This year, the Patriots claimed Martellus Bennett off waivers after he openly feuded his way out of Green Bay. They also signed veteran receiver Kenny Britt three weeks ago after he complained his way out of Cleveland. And on Tuesday they added Harrison, whose legendary career with Pittsburgh ended with a swift release last week.
The Patriots are one of the few teams that is going to compete for the Super Bowl every year. So it makes sense that discarded veterans find their way to New England. The promise of a Super Bowl ring is just the thing to make them happy and keep them in line.
“Me and my wife we were definitely excited,” Britt said Wednesday. “A few teams wanted to give me a chance, and one of the names that stuck out is Patriots. And we really didn’t think twice about it. I can’t skip out on this opportunity at all, with the quarterback they have and the head coach they’ve got.”
The recent additions of Britt and Harrison underscore the mercenary makeup of the team. The Patriots should probably be renamed the Hessians, after the 30,000 German mercenaries that comprised about a quarter of the British military during the Revolutionary War.
Injuries are starting to pile up. Familiar faces such as Julian Edelman and Dont’a Hightower are long gone, placed on injured reserve months ago. And the player-development pipeline is a little thin after the Patriots essentially punted on the draft last spring.
It’s Brady, Gronk, and . . . a bunch of new faces.
As of Wednesday, nine of the 53 players on the roster weren’t with the team in training camp.
And the Patriots have added eight players to the active roster since the trade deadline at the end of October. That may not sound like much, but it’s the most post-deadline roster churn since at least the 2013 season. The only other year that comes close is 2015, and that’s not a season that Patriots fans remember fondly.
In addition to Bennett, Britt, and Harrison, the Patriots plucked defensive end Eric Lee off the Bills’ practice squad, and special teamer Nicholas Grigsby off the Ravens’ practice squad. Veteran defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois has been signed off the street twice this year, to play a total of five games. Speedy receiver Bernard Reedy was signed for two games and handled five punt returns. Linebacker Jonathan Freeny came off the street to play 18 snaps in one game, then was sent back home.
The search for mercenaries actually began as soon training camp ended. Marquis Flowers, Johnson Bademosi, Phillip Dorsett, and Cassius Marsh were all acquired via trade right before the season opener.
Most of the signings have been for depth. Bennett played just 24 snaps in two games before his shoulder injury became too much to bear. Britt has played just 11 snaps in his first two games. Harrison probably won’t be asked to play more than 10-15 snaps, and to provide a little third-down pass rush and set the edge on a few run snaps.
But some of the mercenaries are playing significant roles. Lee has played 248 snaps in five games, with 2½ sacks and an interception. Flowers has played 113 snaps the last three weeks in place of Kyle Van Noy. Jean Francois averages 16 snaps per game and was solid against the run against the Bills as he fills in for Alan Branch. Grigsby has played 61 special teams snaps over the last four games, helping fill in for mainstays Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner.
The Patriots are always forced to tweak the roster at the end of the season. They added Floyd last year, Steven Jackson in 2015, and Austin Collie in 2013.
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But never have they had to add so many random players off the street or off other rosters.
Injuries have been the main reason for their mercenary tactics. Edelman, Hightower, Ebner, and Marcus Cannon are on IR. Slater has missed seven games this year, Chris Hogan has missed five of the last six, and Van Noy has missed three in a row. Rex Burkhead and Branch are also currently dealing with multiweek injuries.
But maybe the injuries aren’t as bad as they seem. The Patriots have used 61 players this year, which ties them for 11th-fewest in the NFL. Last year, when the Patriots were “healthy,” they used 60 players. In 2015, a year they were decimated by injuries, they led the NFL with 73 players. In 2014, another “healthy” season that led to a Super Bowl, they used 66.
What has changed this year compared with others is the player-development model. They went all-in on veteran free agents and eschewed the NFL Draft last spring, trading away most of their picks and keeping just four drafted rookies. Only one is still playing, fourth-rounder Deatrich Wise. The practice squad has been used to help the Patriots game plan, not to develop youngsters. So when injuries hit, the Patriots have been forced to find players outside the building.
“To tell you the truth, right now I’m just trying to catch up to speed with these guys and make sure I’m not slowing them down,” Britt said. “It’s mind blowing, for a guy to come in and try to catch up to the speed with where they’re at now.”
Having a team full of mercenaries didn’t work out so well for the British and the Hessians. But they were also playing a road game.
The Patriots should play the rest of their games at home, assuming they beat the Jets on Sunday (they will). And Devin McCourty said the Patriots know how to get their teammates up to speed quickly.
“We spend so much time here, being here for one week is like being with somebody for a month,” he said. “That’s the fun part of getting to know your teammates and getting out there and cutting it loose with them.”
Acquisitions after trade deadline
DT Ricky Jean-Francois (signed twice): 5 games, 78 snaps
TE Martellus Bennett (claimed): 2 games, 24 snaps
DE Eric Lee (signed off Bills PS): 5 games, 248 snaps
LB Nicholas Grigsby (signed off Ravens PS): 61 special teams snaps in four games
WR Bernard Reedy (signed, 2 weeks): 2 games, 5 punt returns, 32 yards
LB Jon Freeny (signed, 1 week): 1 game, 18 snaps
WR Kenny Britt (signed after clearing waivers): 2 games, 11 snaps
LB James Harrison (signed after clearing waivers)
TE Matt Lengel (signed off Bengals PS)
DT Darius Kilgo (claimed)
WR Griff Whalen (signed, 1 week)
WR Michael Floyd (claimed)
RB Trey Williams (claimed)
CB Leonard Johnson (signed)
DT Ishmaaily Kitchen (signed 1 week)
WR Leonard Hankerson (claimed)
OT La’Adrian Waddle (claimed)
RB Steven Jackson (signed)
LB Dekoda Waatson (signed)
RB LeGarrette Blount (signed)
TE Steve Maneri (signed)
DT Alan Branch (signed)
TE DJ Williams (signed one week)
WR Austin Collie (signed)