Bill Belichick approached the external free-agency market with caution and restraint, knowing full well that some of his most critical players were free agents themselves. Internal business came first. Difficult decisions needed to be made. He re-signed some of his essential free agents. He also let some key players walk.
After that, the name of the game was "completion." Belichick searched for players who could fill the blanks, cover the gaps and cement depth at vulnerable positions. The ultimate goal was to sculpt a team capable of winning the Super Bowl in 2013.
Here are the best and worst moves Belichick and the Patriots made in free agency.
The Patriots are still questionable on defense. They need pass-rushers. They need some big bodies to eat space and whack down fluid offenses. And their cornerback situation is shaky, even with the re-signing of Kyle Arrington (arguably a "bad move," in and of itself).
Fortunately, the Patriots kept their eyes on safety Adrian Wilson. From the start of free agency, Wilson really flew under the radar. It was easy to forget about him. But, as soon as the Patriots signed him, it all clicked. It made sense.
Wilson's an old-school tough guy with a high football IQ. He's a physical hitter, a playmaker. The guy has swagger. His name carries instant credibility. He has a powerful presence on the field. He's thoughtful and emotional. A true leader. The guy was born to play for the Patriots.
This wasn't a marquee signing, but it was certainly a clever one.
The Patriots have a specific approach to business. They're interested in good deals and dollar-for-dollar value. They're interested in paying appropriately, or, if possible, underpaying.
Problem is, that approach generally limits their free-agency options to unproven prospects, over-the-hill players or perennially injured guys. Hence, the nice prices.
Another consequence of seeking nice prices is that it shuts the door on superstars in their prime. Superstar free agents command too much cash, which puts their dollar-for-dollar value out of whack. That sort of gamble is too severe for New England. It sticks to smaller transactions while other teams soak themselves with big splashes.
New England's smart approach will pay off in the regular season, as it always does. But here's the thing: I'm not worried about the regular season. Never have been.
The playoffs are what I'm worried about.
I don't want the Patriots to fight their way through another glorious season, only to claw back to the AFC title game or the Super Bowl and realize they're still one piece away from winning, or worse, that a missed opportunity during free agency would've put them over the hump.
As usual, a steady stream of wonderful players waltzed right past New England's door, on their way to other homes. That's to be expected, but it's still frustrating.
I was particularly curious to see where Mike Wallace and Dustin Keller would land during free agency. Wallace is a prized gem in the vertical game, a vicious speed demon, young and explosive. Keller's more of a mixed bag who's been somewhat of a disappointment over the last few years, but I always felt there was untapped talent beneath his surface.
Together, they could've put the finishing touches on a great offense (ahem, the Patriots). But instead, they wound up with the Dolphins, a divisional rival that ranked 27th in total yards last season.
It's difficult to envision Wallace completing Miami's offense. There isn't enough foundation intact to complete anything. And, as far as Keller goes, he would've had a better shot of maximizing his potential with a strong offense, instead of drowning in a wobbly offense, as he did with his former team.
It's too bad, because they could've pushed the Patriots past the finish line.
Elsewhere in the AFC East, the Jets have been thoroughly gutted during free agency. They're depleted beyond belief. They're also shakier than usual. Let's put it this way: When Rex Ryan said the team was "not actively trying to trade Darrelle Revis, but if somebody calls, you listen," it was a clear indication that nothing was sacred or stable for Gang Green.
The Bills are also in poor shape. They ended their 2011 season at 6-10, so they threw a train of money at defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. The result: 6-10 during the 2012 season. Now, heading into 2013, the Bills are without a quarterback and seem more lost than ever.
While the Jets, Bills and Dolphins perform radical plastic surgery on themselves, the Patriots just keep cruising forward on autopilot. The more the other teams spin around in chaos, the more stable the Patriots seem.
Proves there's merit in stability and success in stillness.
By the time the 2011 season ended, Wes Welker had radically outperformed a contract that spit him out on the wrong side of 30. It was a bad circumstance combined with bad timing.
The Patriots ended a long, somewhat ugly offseason drama by signing Welker to a one-year deal for the 2012 season. Essentially, it guaranteed that we'd be right back in the same ugly situation heading into 2013. It was a Molotov cocktail waiting to explode.
The aforementioned bomb exploded, which ended with Welker bolting to the Broncos (a conference rival and a personal rival for the quarterback). Then, as if it couldn't get worse, the situation spilled over into a "he said, he said" situation between Robert Kraft and Welker's representation, which played out in front of the media.
All around, this was a very un-Patriots-like predicament. Lingering issues, drama, pecking, passive aggressive tension, the works. In every possible way, the situation was uglier than it should've been. The outcome was unfortunate and likely mishandled by many different hands.
It was a messy breakup. We'll move on, but still, it's sad.
We had some good times.
In the broad scheme of things, nothing's more important than protecting Tom Brady. That's the top priority, all the time. For that reason, the Patriots did a smart thing by locking down offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
Vollmer's a primary reason why the offensive line overachieved and outperformed expectations to such a wild extent last season. He's a unifying force along the line, a confidence-builder for Brady's other bodyguards and an irreplaceable piece of New England's puzzle. Great to have him back.
Similarly, the Patriots made a nice choice by re-signing cornerback Aqib Talib. Though he only played for the team in six games during the 2012 regular season, he provided a boost in the secondary's talent and bulked-up New England's backbone in a major way.
It'll be a fascinating storyline to see how Talib progresses in his first full season with the team. I expect it to go smoothly. This was a win-win for everyone.
Two wise re-signs here.
Aside from signing Donald Jones and flirting with Emmanuel Sanders, the Patriots have done nothing to fill the void left by the departures of Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. As of now, New England's depth at receiver is limited to Kamar Aiken, Danny Amendola, Jeremy Ebert, Andre Holmes, Matthew Slater (primarily a special teamer), Donald Jones and (hopefully) Julian Edelman.
If the health of New England's tight ends were more reliable, I wouldn't be so concerned about its lack of depth at receiver. But, given how shaky the bodies of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have been over the last two years, this depth at receiver is downright reckless.
This situation is so mind-boggling, one can't help but wonder if the Patriots have something up their sleeve. Some hidden moves that haven't been unleashed yet. It would be the only way to justify the current outlook of this offense. Even with their phenomenal strength at running back, they need some additional guys to catch the ball. This is a fatal weakness they must address.
One important thing to note: Donald Jones, a new acquisition from the Bills, has been a nightmare for the Patriots to contain over the last two years. Against the Patriots in 2012, Jones totaled eight receptions, 164 yards and a pair of touchdowns. In 2011, he plunked down 101 yards in a single game against New England. Needless to say, it's good to have him on the Patriots now. Here's hoping he's the real deal.
Though technically not a free agency move, the Patriots made an excellent decision by extending Tom Brady through 2017. It bodes well for the prospect of Brady retiring as a Patriot, which is something Patriots fans would be delighted to see.
The move also created valuable cap space, which allowed the team to retain two of their top three free agents. It also afforded the flexibility to add punishing safety Adrian Wilson, special teams ace Leon Washington and crackerjack receiver Danny Amendola. Hopefully, the cap space will also allow Julian Edelman to get his signature on a new contract as soon as possible.
But, for the most part, the Patriots have kept the core elements of their band together. They have great running backs, a pair of terrific tight ends, tough defenders, a sensational offensive line and an extraordinary quarterback inked for the long haul.
This team is a genuine contender for the ultimate crown.