New England Patriots Free Agency: Grading the Team's Moves so Far

Nick Butterworth@nickbutterworthContributor IMarch 21, 2012

New England Patriots Free Agency: Grading the Team's Moves so Far

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    After a week of NFL free-agency action, the New England Patriots' strategy for 2012 is beginning to take shape.

    While other franchises exploded out of the blocks, welcoming marquee names such as Vincent Jackson and Mario Williams with open arms and bulging checkbooks, the Patriots sat back and watched the carnage unfold.

    When the dust settled, head coach Bill Belichick did what he usually does, going to work on the middle of the roster, making moves to strengthen what is already one of the deepest teams in the league.

    At the time of writing, 15 players have been re-signed, tagged or picked up from other teams, meaning that competition for roster places in training camp will be fiercer than ever.

    Let's take a look at each transaction in more detail.

Brandon Lloyd, WR

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    Grade: A

    After the money that was thrown around in the opening days of free agency for second-tier wide receivers, Lloyd represents seriously good value at $12 million on a three-year deal.

    While equivalent, if younger players such as Pierre Garcon (five years, $42.5 million, $20.5 million guaranteed) and Robert Meachem (four years, $25.9 million, $14 million guaranteed) cashed in elsewhere, Lloyd offered a discount to the Patriots to reunite with his former offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels.

    So what can the Patriots expect from Lloyd in 2012?

    Given the likely competition for targets from Tom Brady, he will struggle to replicate his 2010 numbers (1,448 yards, 11 touchdowns) anytime soon.

    However, with defenses preoccupied with a gameplan for Rob Gronkowski and stemming the flow from the short routes dominated by Wes Welker, Lloyd could find more space to operate outside the numbers than ever before.

    Even in a trade-disrupted 2011, Lloyd caught 70 catches for 966 yards on two different teams, and his comfort level under McDaniels should allow him to hit the ground running.

    That there are questions around his character, and whether his personality will fit in New England give cause for concern, but this move just made one of the league's best offenses even more potent, without breaking the bank for a star name such as Mike Wallace or Vincent Jackson.

Wes Welker, WR

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    Grade: A

    Wes Welker will earn $9.5 million under the franchise tag next season, unless a long-term deal can be agreed by both sides in the coming weeks and months.

    The Patriots' initial offering of two years for $16 million last season now looks light in the context of the mega-deals brokered at the start of free agency. 

    Unfortunately for Welker, who outperformed his five-year, $18.5 million deal by some distance, the NFL is a business, and contracts are awarded on expected future production, not on sentiment or past deed.

    Despite his status as a top-five receiver last year, he turns 31 in May, and his injury history leaves a nagging concern that his eventual slide in production will be swift and irreversible.

    That day won't come in 2012, though, and in the meantime, the Patriots retain a core weapon in Tom Brady's aerial arsenal, with the option of moving on if the price is still steep a year from now.

Jonathan Fanene, DT/DE

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    Grade: B

    Following the release (and probable retirement) of Mike Wright and the uncertainty over Mark Anderson and Andre Carter's futures, the acquisition of former Cincinnati Bengal Jonathan Fanene makes plenty of sense.

    Although not a pass-rushing specialist, at 6'4" and 291 pounds, Fanene is versatile enough to set the edge as a 4-3 end in the run game before rushing the quarterback as a defensive tackle on third down.

    If he repeats his 6.5-sack performance in a situational role last year, his $3.85 million contract will look like another Belichick bargain. For Shaun Ellis-type money, Fanene arrives with a shorter resume, but unlike Ellis, is still in his physical prime at 30 years old.

    The signing doesn't replace the need to bring back Anderson or Ellis, but adds solid depth to a thinning defensive line.

Dan Connolly, C/OG

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    Grade: B+

    After two seasons of digging the Patriots out of a hole on the offensive line, Connolly's return felt like something of a formality.

    Filling in at both guard spots throughout 2010, then at center for most of the 2011 season, the undrafted rookie in 2005 has come a long way in his seven seasons in the league.

    He offers above-average pass protection for Tom Brady, and with Dan Koppen's return far from certain, his signature adds stability to a line loaded with question marks entering 2012.

Daniel Fells, TE

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    Grade: B+

    Despite being one of the most talented positions on the roster in 2011, tight end was also one of the thinnest, with no back-up options behind Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

    Enter Daniel Fells. He's by no means the cheapest third tight end in the NFL, coming in at three years for a potential $7 million, but that speaks to his credibility as a solid insurance policy in the passing game.

    Fells caught 19 passes for 256 yards and three touchdowns in a wretched passing offense in Denver last year, and while his opportunities may be limited in New England, he is a consistent performer who can also block to an average level.

    In the event that Gronkowski or Hernandez miss time this year, Fells allows the Patriots to retain the two tight end sets that keep defensive coordinators around the league awake at night.

Donte' Stallworth, WR

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    Grade: B-

    Right now, I would peg Stallworth as a long shot to make the team, but as a low-risk, high-reward opportunity, it made sense to kick the tires from a financial perspective.

    In his lone season with the Patriots in 2007, he provided a speedy alternative to Randy Moss in the third wide receiver role, but with 46 catches, 697 yards and three touchdowns, his production was limited more by his drops on long bombs than a lack of opportunity in the system.

    At the very least, Stallworth's return places further doubt on Chad Ochocinco's ability to earn a roster place in 2012, as they will likely compete for a single spot as the fourth wide receiver.

Anthony Gonzalez, WR

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    Grade: B

    Gonzalez has seen the field just twice in the past three seasons, and although he will be given a chance to prove his status in training camp, I would be surprised to see him complete a full 16-game slate this coming year.

    When healthy, he has the talent to make the roster and would provide an upgrade over Julian Edelman as the team's third or fourth wide receiver.

    His most productive season came in 2008, with 57 catches, 664 yards and four touchdowns, which is broadly comparable with Deion Branch's numbers from last year (51 catches, 701 yards, five touchdowns). 

    If he can prove that his run of injuries are behind him, his presence will generate one of the more interesting training camp storylines, as the battle for a roster spot at wide receiver ought to be intense.

Robert Gallery, OG

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    Grade: B+

    With the news of Logan Mankins' offseason ACL surgery filtering through, the move to bring in Gallery suddenly makes a lot of sense.

    Ranked at 27th in the top left guard list in Matt Miller's B/R NFL 1,000 series, Gallery is a serviceable replacement for Mankins in the early stages of the season, and his ability to play tackle offers versatility that is a key thread throughout most free-agent pickups in the past week.

    His arrival could also be tied to the uncertainty over Brian Waters' status. Much as Belichick would love to see him return for one more season, he is considering retirement, which would bring to end one of the more underrated careers in the NFL.

    Bill's long-term crush on Gallery, dating back to the 2004 draft, could be misleading in projecting his role for 2012, but his ability to remain healthy—something of an issue in Oakland and Seattle—will largely decide how much he contributes.

Steve Gregory, S

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    Grade: C

    Gregory forced his way into the starting lineup in San Diego from 2010 onwards, and his ability to play multiple positions across the secondary surely played into the decision to bring him to Foxborough.

    The free safety position was a disaster for the Patriots last year, with James Ihedigbo struggling and Sergio Brown in particular looking out of his depth, so any move to strengthen the position is welcome.

    With help potentially arriving through the draft—either in the form of Alabama's Mark Barron or a larger cornerback conversion project—Gregory could be a short-term solution that allows a rookie to learn and develop in a part-time role.

Trevor Scott, DE

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    Grade: B-

    Bill Belichick has a solid record of generating production from low-cost pass-rushers, and Scott should receive plenty of opportunity to prove his worth from both two- and three-point stances in sub-packages.

    Scott's two-sack performance against the Patriots in 2008 likely brought him to the attentions of Bill Belichick, and on a $900,000 base salary for 2012, he represents another "value" signing that can be released with minimal impact if things don't pan out.

    The best-case scenario for Scott could be similar to Tully Banta-Cain's role in 2009, who produced 9.5 sacks in a pure pass-rushing role on third down. At worst, he will provide training camp competition for Rob Ninkovich at a position of weakness on the defense.

Marcus Harrison, DT

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    Grade: C

    Harrison was picked up by the Patriots in October 2011, only to be cut a day later. He has already stuck with the team longer this time around, but I would temper any expectation of a significant contribution from the former third-round draft pick.

    If there is any interest beyond adding him as a training camp body for the defensive line, it will be to try him out as a 3-4 defensive end, competing with the likes of Ron Brace and Myron Pryor for a roster spot.

    The Patriots may return to more three-man fronts in 2012, and at 6'3" and 316 pounds, he certainly has the size to draw double-teams, but whether his lack of experience is a limiting factor remains to be seen.

Special Teams

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    Matthew Slater, S/WR, Niko Koutouvides, LB, Tracy White, LB, Marquice Cole, CB: B

    Slater heads the list of special teams signatures for his contribution on all units, although last year's experiment of using him at safety in spot duty is hopefully a thing of the past.

    Tracy White was a starting linebacker in Super Bowl XLVI, which speaks more to the lack of depth on defense last season, as does the extended playing time for Koutouvides in the playoffs. Both are solid special teams contributors who provide continuity in the third phase of the game.

Final Grade: B+

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    While no individual signing can be considered a jaw-dropper, Bill Belichick has addressed a number of depth issues at problem areas on the roster.

    Brandon Lloyd is far and away the headline acquisition of the group, and even he lacks the star power of other available receivers in free agency.

    But Belichick's understated approach only tells half the story—with next month's draft coming into focus, the pursuit for impact playmakers could, and should, begin there, where the available talent can be acquired at cap-friendly prices.

    Fans disappointed with the lack of aggression displayed in free agency will point to how much better the team could be with a Mario Williams, Brandon Carr or Mike Wallace on board. In that sense, it is difficult to argue the point.

    But the ultimate counter-point? A dominant, consistent franchise, hauling in nine division titles and five Super Bowl appearances in 11 seasons.

    In Bill we trust? Absolutely. A little excitement every now and again didn't harm anyone, though, did it?