Philippe Moreau

New England Knows Caution During Free Agency

Created on Mar. 12, 2014 2:32 AM EST

In free agency this offseason, a bunch of teams have signed new players, and others have made pretty big moves already. For example, DeMarcus Ware and Julius Peppers have been released by the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears, respectively. The Cleveland Browns, who were successful in the first half of last season thanks to their defense, tightened up their “D” by signing linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Donte Whitner. The Denver Broncos added cornerback Aqib Talib is another big move. The Broncos wanted to make sure that if they make it back to the Super Bowl, they will not get dominated as they did by the Seattle Seahawks.

The New England Patriots, with the exception of signing the tight end with a name impossible to pronounce (Michael Hoomanawanui), have only signed Pro Bowl corner Darrelle Revis to a one-year contract, something the Pats have done scarcely in recent years.

In the past, the Patriots have not been big spenders in the free agent market. New England has always prided its organization on building from within. There are risks associated with giving a big contract to a NFL free agent. Potential free agents, who just played out their “contract year”, may have been overachieving due to their status of their contracts. However, when they get their pay day, the player’s effort appears to go down dramatically. Former defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth is the poster boy this theory. He signed a seven year, $100 million contract with the Washington Redskins in 2009 before his work ethic was severely questioned. Haynesworth was then traded to the Patriots for a lower price and lasted only four months in New England.

Last year, the Patriots brought in wide receiver Danny Amendola from the St. Louis Rams. He seemed like a fair replacement to Wes Welker, who was signed by Denver. The only thing that worried Pats’ fans about the signing was the injuries that the Texas Tech product carried. Amendola, despite a very productive first game, was inconsistent throughout the season and recorded only 54 receptions. He could not fully replace Welker or meet the expectations that were placed on him. Additionally, another signing that led to a lot of drama was quarterback Tim Tebow. But the media circus did not last long because the Florida product was released before the beginning of the season.

In 2012, it was wide receiver Brandon Lloyd who was supposed to contribute to the passing attack. Lloyd, just like Amendola, had also come from the Rams, after spending three seasons in Denver. Lloyd recorded 74 catches for 911 yards with the Patriots, posting his second highest catch total of his career, but was still released by New England on March 2013.

The last time the Patriots made a splash in free agency was in 2007, the same year they acquired Wes Welker from the Miami Dolphins and signed him to an extension. Linebacker Adalius Thomas and wide receiver Donte’ Stallworth were each signed by the Pats shortly after.

However, the greatest acquisition in that offseason was when New England acquired wide receiver Randy Moss in return for a fourth round draft pick. At the time, NFL fans questioned Moss’ attitude and wondered if he would be a good fit with the team first attitude of New England. It was a pretty good season for New England, as Moss and Brady each broke the record for most receiving and passing touchdowns, respectively, in a single season. New England coasted en route to an 18-0 record, but their quest for perfection ended with a 17-14 loss in Super Bowl XLII.

It is hard to predict whether big-name signings will translate to instant success on the field. However, signing free agents at a high price is often risky because it is rare that these players will continue to play with the same intensity that they have before they secured their contract. Additionally, some players do not perform well in new environments. As the Washington Redskins have demonstrated over the years, signing big paychecks in March or April does not guarantee success in the regular season, or, most importantly, in the playoffs.

The Patriots have focused on building their team through good coaching and player accountability. New signings can hurt team chemistry, unless the talent is too great like with the 2007 Patriots. But in any case, carrying this type of financial risk can prevent teams from spending on more talent.

On the other hand, signing a key free agent can be a quick way to fix, or cover up, some weaknesses. Tom Brady had trouble finding his receivers at the beginning of the season and had one of his worst years statistically in 2013. Therefore, he could use some help in the receiving corps. A big-bodied receiver, like Hakeem Nicks, could relieve some pressure off of the small receivers. He could help the fragile tight end Rob Gronkowski get free of the double, sometimes triple, coverage that he sees.

Should the Patriots try to attract highly talented players? Yes.

Should they do it at any cost? No, as when giving extravagant contracts to high profile free agents, teams rarely get their full return on investment.