by Bruce Allen, Bill Barnwell, Greg Doyle, Tim Jordan, and Scott Benson
March came in like a lion and went out like a lamb for the Patriots, at least as far as free agency goes. The Patriots roared, uncharacteristically, through the early days of the period, securing a premier defensive free agent before turning again to the team’s offense with a dramatic facelift of the team’s receiving corps. Let’s bring in the Roundtable gang for a wrap-up on a busy month for the Pats.
The Patriots moved quickly and wrapped up Adalius Thomas in about a day, giving him the richest free agent contract in the history of the team. What impact will Thomas have on the Pats defense?
BA: According to Marvin Lewis, not much. According to everyone else, a huge impact, and exactly the player the Patriots needed right now. A linebacker who can do it all, including running with tight ends, which was a weak spot in the Patriots defense last season. He will play all over the field in Dean Pees’ defense, rushing the passer, dropping back in pass coverage and playing the run. While the team could still use an injection of youth at this spot, they’ve now got a guy who can step in and play this season as well.
BB: It depends on how they employ him. Thomas is a very good player, but what the Patriots need more than anything else is a linebacker who can move in space and is very good – not adequate, not embryonic, very good – in coverage. Thomas can be that guy, but if he is, the media and by proxy most fans will see him as a bust because he won’t have thirteen sacks. That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t a good signing, because he is, but more so that the Patriots just have a really dire situation at ‘backer.
GD: Thomas will have a big impact. I wasn’t high on the signing at first in the sense that I recognize he is a very good player, but I felt his age (29), the fact he is mostly an outside backer and I feel benefitted somewhat from the Ravens style made him not the ideal fit for the Pats. But in examining it further, I have gotten more excited about it. I like the contract, it was very reasonable. I like his versatility and I think he can in fact contribute inside at least sometimes and I like what I have learned about him both in interviews and stories about him. He seems like a Patriots type. So, in sum, I don’t expect him to be better than say Mike Vrabel or Roosevelt Colvin. But I do expect him to be on par with them and having another top flight defender will make a very good defense even better.
TJ: The most oft heard comparison is to Willie McGinest, but Willie was bigger and, while versatile for his size, couldn’t do as many things as Thomas can. If reports out of Baltimore are true and he ends up being capable of learning new schemes and responsibilities quickly, he could have more impact than any free agent in the Belichick era. Belichick’s defense main goal is to confuse opposing offenses and adding a player like Thomas, with opposing centers and QB’s uncertain of his responsibilities from play to play, will make them an intimidating front. Each year, it’s reasonable to assume that by midseason the Patriots will have a very good defense. Based on the Thomas signing I’ve increased my expectation to “great defense”.
KT: As a fan, it is a great feeling when your team flies in completely beneath the radar and snaps up arguably the top available free agent of the year. It’s about as exciting a time as there can be during the offseason. The reality is I’m not sure Thomas’ impact will be all that great, at least for this upcoming season. We’ve been blessed here with some great outside linebacker play from the likes of Willie McGinnist, Mike Vrabel and Rosie Colvin. Really, the only time that position became a relative weakness was late last year when Vrabel was forced to move to inside linebacker and Tully Banta-Cain took over the vacated outside spot. Swapping TBC for Thomas is no doubt a huge upgrade from the end of last year, but the team still hasn’t addressed what I would consider the biggest weakness which is the inside LBs. One way of looking at it the Thomas signing is that if he is as good as advertised at OLB, it will raise the level of play of the entire front 7 enough to compensate for any weaknesses on the inside. Then there is also the whole buzzword of ‘flexibility’ – that the Patriots will be able to move Thomas around all over the field and confound opposing offenses. Whether this is true remains to be seen. It’s probably going to take some time for Thomas to get comfortable with the Patriots base defense before they can start moving him all over the place. And smart opposing offenses will certainly try to figure out ways to neutralize Thomas and go after the weaker inside linebackers. As a longer term move, however, particularly for when Vrabel and Colvin are gone, you can’t argue with it.
New England allegedly contemplated a poison pill offer to Dolphins WR Wes Welker, but ultimately surrendered 2nd and 7th round picks in this year’s draft to acquire him by trade. Will Welker prove to be worth the draft picks?
BB: I love Wes Welker, but no. Welker’s a very useful player: he’s a good short-to-medium receiver and he’s a solid special teams gunner /returner. Who does that remind you of? Right — Troy Brown, who he’s replacing. Troy Brown was an eighth round pick; Welker was undrafted. That’s not an accident; the point I’m getting at is that Welker is an easily-replacable and easily-findable player. You don’t give these guys big contracts, even though they’re useful, because there’s always one or two of them on the scrap heap. It would be easy to bring several undrafted or low-cost guys in for training camp, see who learns the playbook and buys in best, and get 95% of the player Welker is for the minimum. Giving up a second rounder for Welker is bad — the seventh rounder, which saved the Patriots $19 million in (granted, unlikely-to-be-earned) salary, was a godsend.
GD: I think so. Welker is young, sure-handed and will be a perfect slot receiver for the Pats system. He can also return kicks. He is a known commondity and the Pats rely on slot receivers, particularly on third down, more than a lot of teams. Throwing to them is also a strength of Tom Brady’s. Having someone you know can fill the role for years is definitely worth the uncertainty of 2nd and 7th round picks.
TJ: There are a few different ways to look at this. They had the flexibility to send a two and a seven because they got a good price for Branch. At the same time, it’s fair to wonder if this move represents a squandering of draft picks because the price was high. I’ll say this, I don’t think the dolphins would get that deal from any other team in the league for Welker. In that sense, it may be fair to question whether or not they negotiated as a front office effectively, especially in light of the balked “poison pill” offer which gave the Dolphin front office a peek at their cards. Now my unabashed fan’s take: Belichick has played against Welker for 3 full seasons and I’ll trust his scouting acumen over anyone else’s regarding what a player is worth to them. If you’re going to work a trade within the division a premium should be expected. It’s no secret that Belichick values versatility very much. This offseason he is showing just how valuable he thinks it is.
KT: It’s not just the draft picks surrendered that need to be considered, but also a substantial compensation package of 5 years, $18.1 million, and a $5.5 million signing bonus. No way has Welker’s NFL performance to date justified those dollars. By comparison, the 60th pick last year, Maurice Jones-Drew, received a 4 year/$2.75 million rookie contract, with a $1.2 million signing bonus. And frankly, if you could be assured of getting a player as promising as Jones-Drew with the 60th pick, this would be a foolish trade to make. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that a second round pick can actually play (and the Patriots don’t exactly have a sparkling track record with 2nd rounders in recent years). The lesson here for Pats-ologists may be that the Patriots are willing to pay much more for unrealized potential if that potential is actually demonstrated in the NFL rather than in the college game.
BA: His success against the Patriots is well documented and just getting him off of the Dolphins roster is a plus two times a year. I think he’ll be more productive than any second round pick would’ve been this season, and is a young veteran who should be just hitting his prime. He too can do a lot of things on the football field, which increases his value to the roster.
The Pats surprisingly signed free agent WR’s Donte Stallworth and Kelley Washington to low-risk contracts, and along with adding Welker, have completely remade their receiver group. So much so that Reche Caldwell (career high 61 catches in 06) and Jabar Gaffney (21 catches for 244 yards and 2 td’s in the playoffs) have become an after thought. How do you see the Patriots receivers corps taking shape?
GD: I think Caldwell and Gaffney still fit in the plans. Both showed good things at different points last season. The problem is, they are more short and mid-range receivers. They can occasionally get deep, but getting downfield isn’t the strength of their games. Stallworth and Washington bring more downfield potential, though both will come to camp with at least some questions about them, both personally and health-wise and will have to prove themselves to at least some degree. I see all four guys on the roster, Welker as the slot guy and Chad Jackson likely starting on the PUP list for 6-10 games due to his knee injury.
TJ: Truthfully, my lucky isn’t lit by any one of these signings, but taken as a collective group I am optimistic that this will be difficult offense to stop. They are going into training camp with five veteran wideouts, two that have been coveted by the coaching staff since their college days, and another that has been one of a division rivals most effective weapons against them historically. The offensive philosophy is similar to the defensive one, they want to be unpredictable, to have threats that can exploit a defense, to have players that can do different things from play to play. They get that with this rash of signings, plus maybe the best training camp competition at the position that they’ve had since 2000.
KT: I wonder if the radically revamped receiver corps has anything to do with the hiring of Nick Caserio as the new wide receivers’ coach. Caserio is late of the player personell department, where he worked closely with Scott Pioli in “shopping for the groceries.” I’m sure he brings something of a different perspective to his new job as a position coach, and his experience may make him a superior advocate for himself with the front office than was his predecessor. Caserio probably still has a direct pipeline to the front office. It’s also likely that, due to his time in the front office, Caserio has superior knowledge of other teams’ receivers, as compared to Josh McDaniels and the other position coaches, who are more focused on their own players. I suspect that Caserio’s fresh perspective and somewhat unique experience for a position coach is a primary factor in why there will likely be an almost complete turnover of the teams’ receiver corps this offseason.
<BA: I think Caldwell was always slotted as a second or third receiver, he was just forced into a bigger role last year. If he’s got the right attitude, Stallworth becomes your top receiver and I think Gaffney showed enough that he might actually move up to be the second receiver. Welker is your slot receiver and Caldwell, Washington and Chad Jackson will likely battle for playing time. The other piece is Troy Brown, who is recovering from knee surgery, but still wants to play, and Bill Belichick said this week that he is in their plans for 2007. Could the Patriots enter the year with six receivers? I think that it is possible that Jackson starts the year on the PUP list, just to make sure he is healed from the ACL injury. That will give the team six weeks or so to have all seven of those guys on the team if they want, and then if someone gets hurt or Jackson isn’t able to play they’ll still have depth. As they say in baseball, these things have a way of working themselves out.
BB: I think the first question is whether Chad Jackson takes up a roster spot or spends the year on IR. Assuming that Stallworth and Welker are locks to make the roster (and I think they are), and splitting the difference on Jackson and saying he goes on the PUP list to start the season, that leaves enough space for Gaffney, Caldwell, and Washington to all make the team. The difference between the group will be their desire and ability to play special teams. Washington has said that he’s happy to play on special teams, and he was competent as a Bengal on special teams in ’06. Caldwell played on special teams with the Chargers, and I honestly don’t remember him showing up on special teams one way or another in 2006. Gaffney, on the other hand, doesn’t do special teams — it’s one of the reasons he was cut by the Eagles in the first place. That makes him the odd man out.
Any thoughts on tight end Kyle Brady and running back Sammy Morris, role players signed to the offense?
TJ: I think the Patrick Pass era has come to an unceremonious close and they’ve upgraded with Morris. Again, he’s versatile; he plays above average special teams, can catch passes (37 last year, 3rd highest total of his 7 seasons) , and is an adequate runner to spell the starters. He always seemed to play well against the Patriots in that role and I see no reason to expect anything different now that he’s a wearing a silver helmet. As for Brady, they needed to replace Graham’s blocking and Belichick’s always liked him going seemingly back to kindergarten. I didn’t even know he had such a reputation as a blocker until reports of his signing. I guess it’s OK, but as a fan it feels like waking up next to the rebound girl with funny teeth and no self-esteem after an anticipated, but difficult, break up with a broad who had it all. It’s not Snaggletooth’s fault things didn’t work out, but that won’t stop me from comparing them.
KT: Morris should help if they ever find themselves in the situation they were in in 2005, where Patrick Pass and Heath Evans were getting an inordinate share of rushing attempts due to injuries. Morris should be able to carry the load effectively as a primary back for one or two games at a time if Maroney is out. They have missed having a capable every-down backup for the past few years. They were smart to go out and target Brady, who is a totally different type of player than Ben Watson, David Thomas and Garrett Mills. They now have a pretty well rounded tight-end group to work with.
BA: Brady gives you the blocking you lost with the departure of Daniel Graham, but at a fraction of the price. With Benjamin Watson here, David Thomas coming up, and the new receivers, the team really needed the blocking tight end. Sammy Morris gives you the Patrick Pass role, a versatile running back who can be effective when used correctly.
BB: Same sort of moves as the Welker trade and signing — useful but relatively-easy-to-find skill sets. The reason this move is better is because of the short contracts and the cheaper salaries. Brady’s not really worth $5.4 million, but the Patriots will make that back just selling T. BRADY jerseys instead of BRADY ones (courtesy to Aaron on that one).
GD: Brady is an outstanding blocker, though I wonder about his age. At 35, he has to fall off at some point in his level of play. He has missed 9 games in 12 years, which is a great record for health but also means he has taken a lot of pounding. I expect him to be a role player and with two other good tight ends also getting time, Ben Watson and David Thomas, Brady should be a good fit as a part-time player. Morris I like a lot. He is just a competent, good football player that does nothing great, but lots of things well. He is known for playing very hard on special teams. He is known for his blitz pickup. He can catch a pass occasionally and although not a burner, he runs hard and can do that as well. I like that signing.
Veteran tight end Daniel Graham signed with the Broncos. What will this loss mean to the Patriots?
KT: I’m sure Graham caused defenses a lot of problems, because he was not merely a blocking tight end. He was also an effective if somewhat underutilized receiver. Kyle Brady may possibly be in Graham’s league as a blocker, but not as a pass-catching tight end. His presence and location on the field may allow defenses to better key on the running game.
BA: The Patriots loved Graham’s game and his demeanor and presence. He will be missed in the locker room. On the field, I think they really needed the blocking tight end, but weren’t going to break the bank for that skill. Graham gets to go home to the team his dad played for with a boatload of guaranteed money. He battled injuries throughout his career, and matching that offer just didn’t seem to make sense for the team. He should be a bigger part of the passing game in Denver, and it will be tough to see him on the other side when the two teams meet up.
BB: Not much. He’s not really someone who stands out and makes someone watching say — geez, I really wish we had Daniel Graham on that wham block, not Kyle Brady/Garrett Mills. The impact is going to be pretty low.
GD: Its a big loss. Graham was a great blocker for the Pats, could catch difficult passes and was captain, so obviously respected by his teammates.
TJ: It blows. Graham, despite passing accolades upon his departure, never got the credit he deserved as an all-around TE here in New England. He was a great locker room leader (voted Captain last year), “devastating blocker”, underrated pass catcher, physically gifted, and Brady’s go to guy for pre-game headbutts. He’s also been responsible for some huge plays in his time here (TD against the Jets in last year’s playoffs, started the final drive in Indy with a 25 yarder) and finishes behind Russ Francis and Ben Coates for TE TD’s in Oatriots history. He was also a very big part of Corey Dillon’s franchise record breaking rushing year in 04. Graham wasn’t on the field as much as we would have wanted as fans (the only thing I could posit as a reason not to pony up for him), but he was a great Patriot and an instrumental part of the historic 03-04 run. Also, owner of one of the smoothest goatees in the NFL. Denver, team known for their love of TE play and smart personnel decisions, is undoubtedly happy to have him for the next 5 years. Each offseason brings additions and subtractions, Daniel Graham was by far the biggest subtraction this time.
FA CB Nate Clements was rumored to get as much as $22 million in bonus money from the Niners. Thomas will get about $22 million in his first two seasons with the Pats. How will the growth in the salary cap, and the events of this free agency season, impact the Pats ability to sign Asante Samuel?
BA: Hard to say. Asante is saying the right things at the moment, but you know he’s looking at those deals and thinking that he belongs in that group. He did tie Champ Bailey for the AFC lead in interceptions, and likely is looking to get paid like Bailey and Clements. I have some confidence though, that the two sides will be able to do something here. Samuel’s agent Alonzo Shavers doesn’t appear to be the type to go nuclear on the Patriots.
BB: It’s a little disappointing that Pioli wasn’t able to foresee the spending levels in this market and lock up Samuel and Deion Branch for what would be, now, relative pittances. Branch wanted $39 million for six years. That’s basically what Welker’s offer sheet was going to be for. Again — I love Wes Welker. He is about 55% of the receiver Deion Branch is. As for Samuel, I’d be more concerned about getting him to sign his franchise tender first. No guarantees he will yet.
GD: I was surprised the amount Clements got. It will surely make it more difficult to sign Samuel, but Samuel is simply not as good a corner as Clements. So, I don’t expect he’ll get as big a deal. Still, the entire market for corners is inflated more than most positions, so Samuel, if signed, will sign one of the larger deals in Patriots history should he elect to return. I wonder if he is really that good? Or is he just a good, not great, player who had a single great year?
TJ: On paper, it doesn’t look very good, but fans can take heart that there has been no reports of bad blood and both parties seem to be approaching the situation positively. If I had to guess today, I’d say he’s heading into the season with the one year franchise tender – a good deal (according to this year’s market) for the team. Past that, you hope that a long-term deal can be worked out that is tenable for both sides during the season. The Patriots have managed the cap well and with increases it’s possible, but when you consider that their public pronouncements of “finding inefficiencies in the market to exploit” as a personnel philosophy it’s not likely. Samuel is peking as a player at the right position at the right time. They’ll be nothing to exploit in his next contract. Assante is getting paid, most likely by another team.
KT: We should keep in mind that it wasn’t until last June that there were any real hints that there was trouble-a-brewin with Deion Branch. I have a hard time believing that Samuel might give up the nearly $8 million in salary due this year in order to leverage a contract extension from either the Pats or a potential trade destination. But, the ridiculous money Clements received this year might change his perspective somewhat. There is also the precedent set by New England last year, when they allowed holdout Branch to seek out a trade partner who would meet his demands on a contract extension. The Patriots need to be very careful what they say to Asante and his representatives during negotiations. The last thing they need is another round of union grievances and threatened litigation.
Any random thoughts to close with?
BB: Anyone but Julian Tavarez?
GD: I have a few thoughts on the draft. One is I really like Paul Posluszny, the linebacker from Penn State. I think he can fill the Bruschi role with the Pats, but is more athletic than Bruschi and can perhaps bounce both inside and outside in a 3-4. He is a great character guy, a good athlete, a leader and definite NFL starter. What’s not to like at a position of need for the Pats? I believe that they may elect to trade down with their second first rounder, number 28, to the mid-second rounder and accumulate another second rounder for next year. That would be similar to what they did in 2003 when they traded down with Baltimore and took Eugene Wilson. They also picked up an extra first in 2004, which turned into Vince Wilfork. Baltimore ended up with Kyle Boller. I expect a further stock-piling for next year with some of this year’s picks. If they do utilize 28, look for safeties Reggie Nelson of Florida or Brandon Merriweather from Miami to be the guys. Of the two, I like Nelson better. He is bigger, better character and seems to be more polished than Merriweather. If they trade into the second, I see them taking Josh Wilson, a solid, very fast, but slightly short corner from Maryland. Occasionally I allow myself to get carried away about finding a running back to team with Laurence Maroney and I see Marshawn Lynch slipping to them, but more likely they’ll wait to the third round, or trade up into the late second, and take one of the second-tier backs like Michael Bush from Louisville, Chris Henry from Arizona, Darius Walker from Notre Dame, Brian Leonard from Rutgers or Lorenzo Booker from Florida State. I do believe they’ll take someone to team with Maroney.
TJ: I am trying to reconcile the complexion of next year’s WR corps and figure out if they truly are looking to draft one (they’ve been linked to first rounders Meachem and Rice). Throw in recent reports of Troy Brown “having a role with (the Patriots) next year” and you’ve got something worth wondering about. That gives them Stallwort, Caldwell, Gaffney, Washington, Welker, Brown, and Jackson without any draftees. This makes me wonder about other variables that will effect this group: Brown may be in a non-playing capacity, Jackson may spend a good portion of the year, or the whole year, on the PUP, a FA with fanfare could most definitely not see the end of training camp, and we may have seen the end of either Caldwell or Gaffney just as we were getting to like them (depending on whether or not you hold a grudge for the Indy game). The safe assumption is that this team wants to see a better unit and is looking towards depth and competition to help achieve that.
KT: I suspect that if you liked the “run & shoot” Patriots of 2006, you are going to absolutely love the 2007 edition.
BA: Great offseason thus far. Looking forward to what the draft holds, and then rookie camp, minicamp and finally training camp. I think the team has done well in filling holes thus far, and should look to the draft to try and get talent and youth on the defensive side of the ball, hopefully in the linebacker and secondary positions. A few other minor free agent signings might be in order too, for depth. In the summer, leading up to training camp, the salary cap isn’t really an issue, so players can be signed and the cap can be worked out later.