Super Bowl teams tend to have a talent exodus. Players who win are perceived as more valuable, making them harder to retain. Great teams have lots of good players, and those players cost money, so those teams are rarely swimming in salary-cap room to begin with. That makes top-of-the-market replacements harder to come by.
That might sound like a list of talking points from a group therapy session designed for Patriots fans, but for those who were alarmed by the losses of Malcolm Butler, Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola, and Nate Solder early in the NFL free agency period, and weren’t sated by the additions of Adrian Clayborn, Jeremy Hill, and Matt Tobin, it’s important to remember.
The point is this: Coming off Super Bowl appearances, the Patriots have lost far more free agent talent than they’ve gained. In that sense, what’s happening is normal. It’s difficult to make the Super Bowl and then get better.
Looking purely at the free agents who came and went in the Bill Belichick era, New England lost more talent than it gained in 2002, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2012, 2015, and 2017. The acquisitions list is highlighted by tight end Christian Fauria in 2002, safety Steve Gregory and receiver Brandon Lloyd in 2012, and defensive end Jabaal Sheard in 2015.
If you count trades, then the acquisition of running back Corey Dillon for a second-round draft pick in 2004 is another clear win.
Last year’s class of Rex Burkhead, Lawrence Guy, and Stephon Gilmore was probably the single biggest influx of talent in a post-Super Bowl year, but it was coupled with the departures of Chris Long, Martellus Bennett, Logan Ryan, Barkevious Mingo, Sheard, LeGarrette Blount, and Michael Floyd.
Losses were significant in other post-Super Bowl years, too. Akeem Ayers, Brandon Browner, Jonathan Casillas, Darrelle Revis, Shane Vereen, and Vince Wilfork all departed after the victory over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.
The question is why?
Beyond the financial factors, there also may be something to Belichick’s proclamation from just over a year ago that the team starts post-Super Bowl offseasons five weeks behind most of the competition. That’s a high-class problem, sure, but it’s reasonable to think that Belichick, Nick Caserio & Co. could end up a little behind on the free agent class, by their standards, when they’ve spent several weeks preparing for playoff opponents.
The scouting combine serves, unofficially, as the start of the free agency frenzy, where teams meet with agents and potential deals are discussed. The Patriots contingent there this year was small; the team’s reasoning was that several coaches were better served staying behind to play catch-up just a few weeks after they returned from Minnesota.
That theory is bolstered by the fact that the Patriots have done more for their reputation as shrewd buyers on the free agent market in years when they weren’t coming off a Super Bowl.
David Patten, Larry Izzo, Antowain Smith, Mike Vrabel, and Roman Phifer all arrived ahead of the 2001 season. Rodney Harrison was signed in 2003, Rob Ninkovich in 2009, and Darrelle Revis and Patrick Chung in 2014. Mark Anderson, Andre Carter, and Brian Waters all proved savvy moves in 2011. If trades are included, Randy Moss and Wes Welker were huge gets in 2007.
In all of those years, the Patriots weren’t coming off a Super Bowl appearance. An extra couple weeks to vet those players probably isn’t enough to make all the difference, but there are other possible factors. Perhaps a (relative) lack of success encourages more action. Maybe it’s more clear what the team’s needs are, making them easier to address.
Free agency is far from over this year. Many of Belichick’s savviest moves haven’t come in March or April or even over the summer. Think: signing Lewis to a futures contract in December of 2014, or midseason deals with Aqib Talib, Alan Branch, and Blount.
What’s different this year is that the Patriots haven’t retained any of their big-ticket free agents.
In 2005, the incoming free agent class of Monty Beisel, Chad Brown, Tim Dwight, Antuan Edwards, Doug Flutie, Artrell Hawkins, Victor Levya, Wesly Mallard, Chad Morton, Chad Scott, and David Terrell had little impact and was coupled with the departures of Joe Andruzzi, Adrian Klemm, Patten, and Keith Traylor.
In that offseason, though, the Patriots re-signed David Givens and Troy Brown and extended the contracts of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Vrabel.
The 2008 incoming class (Sam Aiken, Fernando Bryant, Victor Hobson, LaMont Jordan, Oliver Ross, Jason Webster, and Tank Williams) was also relatively anonymous. It didn’t make up for the losses of Randall Gay, Asante Samuel, and Eugene Wilson. The Patriots, however, were able to re-sign several important players who had reached free agency, including Tedy Bruschi, Lonie Paxton, Larry Izzo and Moss.
In 2012, the Patriots used the franchise tag on Welker and re-signed Matthew Slater, Brian Hoyer, Deion Branch, Tracy White, Dan Connolly, and Dan Koppen. They re-signed Stephen Gostkowski, Devin McCourty, Sealver Siliga, James Develin (though Develin was an exclusive-rights free agent), Brian Tyms, Branch, and Jerod Mayo in 2015. Dont’a Hightower got a new deal and remained a Patriot last offseason.
Butler was as good as gone long before free agency began. The Super Bowl benching, Gilmore’s contract, last offseason’s drama, and the payday he was bound to receive elsewhere made that all but certain. Lewis was highly regarded in Foxborough but the Patriots have shown a clear preference to load up on cheap talent at running back, an injury-prone position.
Amendola’s market was unexpectedly hot after a phenomenal playoff run for the veteran receiver.
Solder, however, seemed like someone the Patriots would try hard to re-sign, even if that meant letting him test the market before swooping in with a strong counter-offer, as they did with McCourty and Hightower. That didn’t happen this time.
From a fan’s perspective, it’s fair to feel as though things have gone differently this offseason, but it’s not because the Patriots didn’t sign Allen Robinson or Sheldon Richardson. It’s the ones who got away who make this post-Super Bowl signing period different from the others.