NFL Free Agency: New England Patriots Play Small Ball on Day 3

Oliver ThomasContributor IMarch 15, 2012

Steve Gregory is now a member of the New England Patriots.
Steve Gregory is now a member of the New England Patriots.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Another day of free agency is in the books, and another top player is off the shelf.

The New England Patriots can cross at least one more playmaker off their wishlist. Thursday marked the end of the Mario Williams sweepstakes. The former No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft agreed to terms on a six-year deal worth up to $100 million with the Buffalo Bills.

As a result, the Pats can look forward to playing against the former Houston Texans' pass-rusher twice a year now in the revamped AFC East.

Instead of luring in a big catch on day three, New England inked deals with four more modest free agents.

2011 special teams Pro Bowler Matt Slater signed with the team, as did defensive lineman Marcus Harrison, safety Steve Gregory, and offensive lineman Dan Connolly.

The Slater re-signing is a big plus for the Patriots. No. 18 is a jack of all trades. The 6'0", 200 pound UCLA product is the special teams' gunner, a reserve wide receiver and backup safety. The 2008 fifth-round draft pick has carved out a valuable role with the Patriots and was a captain last season.

In 2011, Slater had 24 tackles, a forced fumble and one catch for 46 yards.

As for the Marcus Harrison signing, it won't turn many heads. The former third-rounder in the 2008 draft has previously been a member of the Patriots, but was released after just one day on the job. Harrison who's also an ex-Chicago Bear, hopes this go-around in Foxborough will last a little longer.


Harrison, a 6'3", 316 pound defensive tackle played in 37 games for the Bears. During his tenure with Chicago, the Arkansas alum recorded 55 tackles and three sacks.


Overall, the most surprising move the Pats made on Thursday was the signing of Steve Gregory to a three-year deal.

Gregory, a strong safety by trade, has worked his way up in the NFL. In his time with the San Diego Chargers, the 5'11", 200 pound undrafted free agent played primarily special teams, but also racked up 31 career starts alongside free safety Eric Weddle. Some believe Gregory is best suited as a free safety, but in addition to playing special teams, he can also cover slot receivers.

The speedy, former Syracuse Orangeman is a center fielder in the secondary. Since making his pro debut in 2006, Gregory has totaled 235 tackles, four interceptions and a defensive touchdown.

The last deal the Pats made on Thursday was the re-signing of guard and center Dan Connolly.

Connolly, who's most famous for his 71 yard kick return against the Green Bay Packers, has also done a nice job keeping the Pats' offensive line on an even keel after injuries. The 6'4" 313 pound blocker has started 24 games for New England over the past two seasons.

All in all, the third day of free agency was kind to the Patriots.

No, they didn't ink anybody to blockbuster deals, but they didn't walk away empty-handed either. New England retained their best special teamer in Slater, added depth to the defensive line with Harrison, somewhat patched up the safety position after inking Gregory to a contract, and brought back Connolly.

Playing small ball is wise, but sooner or later the Patriots must swing for the fences.