Are New England Patriots Making a Mistake with Free-Agency Passivity?

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Are New England Patriots Making a Mistake with Free-Agency Passivity?
Elise Amendola/Associated Press

There's never a dull moment when NFL free-agency frenzy kicks off.

That is, unless you're waiting for the New England Patriots to make their first big move. Then there are a lot of dull moments.

Restlessness has turned to apoplexy as the Northeast waits with bated breath for its pride-and-joy football team to make headlines. Of course, none of this should come as a surprise to anyone who's paid attention over the past 16 offseasons with Bill Belichick at the helm of the organization.

This is the Patriots free-agency modus operandi: wait until the dust settles on the top of the market, then strike on some of the second-tier free-agents who help fill needs and fit the system.

You would think that with all Belichick has accomplished, his longstanding offseason strategy would not perplex and anger the fanbase. But as time passes and potential Patriots targets are signed by other teams, the frustration grows.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Running back Matt Forte: signed by the New York Jets, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN.

Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu: signed by the Atlanta Falcons, also reported by Schefter

As the exciting, big-name free agents fly off the board, Patriots fans are left with linebacker Ramon Humber, whom the team signed Wednesday. Then there are reports of the Pats hosting visits by free-agent running backs Benny Cunningham and James Starks, tight end Clay Harbor and wide receiver Chris Hogan, per Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, Adam Caplan of ESPN, and Schefter.

Fans are overwhelmed with news of underwhelming names making visits to New England, but the Patriots are offering no relief. But this is not new for them.

Some of the Patriots' late free-agent signings have been their best. Brandon LaFell took a step back in 2015, but he was one of the Patriots' top free-agent signings of 2014, and he didn't sign until four days after the new league year. In 2012, Brandon Lloyd didn't sign until five days after free agency began. 

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

No, LaFell and Lloyd didn't last long in New England, but they each played an important role in the offense. And they're not the only ones.

Safety Steve Gregory signed three days after free agency started in 2012. Defensive ends Mark Anderson and Andre Carter were signed a few days after free agency began in the wacky 2011 lockout offseason, when it didn't start until late July. In 2013, the Patriots waited until early April to re-sign wide receiver Julian Edelman

Those moves all worked out pretty well for the Patriots. 

Likewise, their early signings have not always panned out.

And even with all that in mind, the Patriots have never relied on big-name free-agent signings. In 2010, the Patriots went 14-2, despite the fact that their biggest signing was backup tight end Alge Crumpler. In 2011, their biggest additions were via trade in the form of wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. 

It's never as easy as looking at the crop of free agents, picking out a favorite and offering him a bunch of money. It has to work within the salary cap.

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

The Patriots have some big decisions coming up, with linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower and defensive end Chandler Jones all set to hit the open market after the 2016 season. They would be smart to get ahead of the game and start negotiating those deals sooner than later, especially since it would help them determine how much money they can spend this offseason.

Either way, they'll need to leave themselves some breathing room to make sure they have enough money for their own. And make no mistake: The amount of guaranteed money being thrown around at the beginning of free agency is always absurd.

The Jets gave Forte $8 million guaranteed on a three-year deal, according to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News; that's a manageable number but still expensive for a 30-year-old running back who could fall off at any time. For context, the Patriots are on the books for just $2,760,000 guaranteed to all of their running backs in 2016, according to Spotrac.

Sanu's contract contains $14 million fully guaranteed, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network. For context, LaFell's contract had just $3 million guaranteed. 

Are the Patriots right to wait beyond the first wave of free agency?

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Backing up the Brink's truck goes against the Patriots' usual offseason strategy of quantity over quality. Every year, the Patriots address their needs through the "volume approach," which is the theory that the team can create competition at positions by adding multiple players. The hope is that someone, or multiple someones, will emerge from a deep training camp battle to provide the answer at those positions.

History tells us it's more likely we'll see a number of smaller signings than one or two big ones. 

And there are plenty such players left. Arian Foster, James Starks, Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount are all still on the market at running back. Anquan Boldin, James Jones and Rueben Randle are all still available at wide receiver. Name the position, and there's someone still available who can fill the need. 

The Patriots are clearly aware of their biggest needs, as illustrated by their multiple visits and reported interest in running backs and wide receivers. As long as they end up with someone, free agency won't be a failure—at least not until we see whether or not they've actually addressed their needs.

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