Since the hiring of our first Bill, Bill Parcells the Patriots have made both good and bad moves in free agency, picking up some key players and seeing others leave. What were the best and worst five moves since 1993 in the portion of the off-season dominated by the comings and going of those whose contract has expired? Over the next five slides I'll take a look at the 5 best pickups since 1993, and then I'll take a look at the 5 worst losses to Free Agency as well. Here we go!
Randall Gay might not seem like a very high profile pickup, but since he was signed by the Patriots as an undrafted free agent prior to the 2004 season, Gay has been a part of two Superbowl winning teams (Pats '04, Saints '09) and that has to count for something.
Gay was able to step in and contribute after injuries took down both the Patriots starting cornerbacks during their 2004 run to the championship. Gay started opposite Asante Samuel (who you'll see somewhere on these slides as well) in Superbowl XXXIX, and was the team's leading tackler (a rare feat form the cornerback position) with 11 tackles in the game.
Picking such a contributor on defense up after teams had passed on him throughout all 7 rounds of the draft shows great foresight on the part of Bill Belichick and his staff. Solid signing, to say the least.
As a first round pick by the Buffalo Bills in the 1997 draft, there were certainly high expectations for Smith from day one in his career in the league. With nearly 1,000 yards in his rookie season, and well over 1,000 in his sophomore campaign there were certainly reasons to be excited about the young running back, but before too long the Bills' coaching staff determined that there was no longer a place for Smith on their roster. This gave the Patriots an opportunity to grab him away from their division rivals.
After doing so, Smith immediately rewarded the Patriots by rushing for 1,157 yards and 12 TD's in his first season on the team. While he didn't score during their playoff (and championship) run in the 2001 post-season, he proved a reliable option and was someone opponents had to watch out for. During the second championship run the team made while he played on the Patriots, Smith ran for two touchdowns, one of those in the Superbowl against the Carolina Panthers.
Smith spent 3 seasons with the Patriots, racking up over 2,500 yards on the ground and 24 total touchdowns. He was a part of 2 New England championship rosters.
Larry Izzo won't find himself on too many "top 5" lists as he primarily has spent his career playing as a special teamer, however he may be one of the best special teamers the game has ever seen.
After going undrafted and then signing with Miami in 1996, Izzo quickly made a name for himself as "one of only two players guaranteed a roster spot", the other was QB Dan Marino. Izzo made his first Pro Bowl appearance as the AFC's special teamer in 2000, immediately prior to being lured away by the Patriots, who signed him in a move that brought the eventual team captain to New England for the next 8 seasons. (For the record his first contract was not 8 years, he just spent a total of 8 years here.)
Izzo went to the Pro Bowl on two more occasions ('02 and '04), and was a part of all 3 New England Patriot championship teams ('01, '03, and '04), as a vital cog of their special teams unit. He was so vital in fact, he was voted special teams captain by his teammates for 7 straight seasons ('01-'07). He has also (unofficially) recorded more special teams tackles than any player in NFL history. Izzo has never once in his career played for a losing team, and has proven valuable at every stop throughout his 15 years in the league.
A four time defensive captain, and a key cog on defense throughout all three championship seasons in New England, Vrabel is and easy guy to pick as one of the Patriots' best free agent signings.
Vrabel was one of the key defensive players on New England's roster, along with teammates like Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi throughout his time here in Foxboro. He spent a total of 8 seasons here, and despite the fact he'd previously played for the Steelers for 4 seasons, was a guy I just wouldn't have pictured anywhere else before he was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs, following the departure of GM Scott Pioli, and as a part of a trade that sent QB Matt Cassel to Kansas City as well.
As a member of the Pats, Vrabel recorded 604 tackles and 48 sacks, including one season of over 100 tackles, and one season with 12.5 sacks. Vrabel was also a special player in that he frequently lined up as a tight end on offense, and throughout his career has as many receiving touchdowns as receptions with 9 total receptions, all for a score and 8 of those with the Patriots. As a Patriot in 2007 he was a Pro Bowl and All-Pro player for the first and only time thus far in his career.
For a long time Adam Vinatieri was a name that struck fear in the hearts of special teams coordinators throughout the league. He was known for his deadly accuracy, particularly in game tying or clinching situations, with a career 20-21 record in game changing situations. His most famous may have been the kick pictured above, a 45 yarder in the driving snow to tie the first round playoff game vs. the Raiders. He later kicked a 23 yard FG to win the game.
Vinatieri played in New England for his first 10 seasons in the league before signing with the Colts as a free agent (a signing which leads to him appearing in this slideshow twice). In that time he went 263-321 as a kicker, including 8-17 from 50+ yards. He was selected as a Pro Bowler twice, in 2002 and 2004, seasons he was also selected as an All-Pro kicker.
Ying, and Yang, heads and tails, good and bad. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, or so the rules of nature dictate. Things are no different in football, and thus we also have a list of the 5 toughest losses to free agency for the New England Patriots, and in some cases for their fans.
We all can think of a few players it particularly hurts to see in another team's uniform, whether it be through trade (guys like Vrabel) or free agency.
Here are five guys we lost to free agency that I think it hurt the most. As a fan, here are a couple guys who didn't quite make the cute, but I still couldn't get used to seeing in a uniform that didn't have a Patriot logo:
Jabar Gaffney was never really a highlight sort of player or mainstream sort of name, but he was a key part of the 2007 record breaking passing offense football fans watch become the only team in history to win 16 regular season games, and nearly win an unprecedented 19 games.
Having a solid option as a third receiver was vital for QB Tom Brady (and conversely the Patriots') success, as this past season painfully demonstrated for us New England fans. Gaffney was a loss many didn't talk about, but I felt right away was going to hurt in ways noone predicted. Sure enough, here we are these days talking about how we need more receivers in New England and there he is in Denver with former coordinator Josh McDaniels, and Lonie Paxton (honorable mention on the previous slide).
Damien Woody was a big man who made a big impact on any offensive line he joined. He started 76 games as a Patriot after being drafted 17th overall in the 1999 draft by the team. Woody was a part of 2 of the New England championship teams, and an anchor on the offensive line here for 5 seasons. Seeing him leave to the Lions following the 2003 season truly had me a bit concerned for Brady's safety.
For all the reasons described in the slide a few back with his name at the top, Vinatieri was thought to be a permanent fixture in New England. Many of us fans were proud to have the best kicker in the league, the one with the golden leg known for his ability to pull through when his number was called.
By a local paper, Vinatieri's signing was called "A Kick in the Teeth", likely as he signed without offering the Patriots the chance to match the Colts' significant offer which made him the highest paid kicker in the league.
Vinatieri had longed for the opportunity to kick in warm weather or a dome, despite that his only suitors had been the Packers and the Patriots prior to his signing with the Colts. This off season was emotionally one of the hardest to take as a New England fan as it's also the one we saw Willie McGinest leave to the Browns.
After being drafted in 1995 by the Patriots Martin was a surprise winner of the Rookie of the Year award that year, after rushing for 1,487 yards and 14 touchdowns. While he only played in New England three seasons before following head coach Bill Parcells to the Jets, and New England received a 1st and 3rd round selection as compensation for his departure, Martin was enough of an impact player for his loss to hurt-especially to a division rival.
Martin went on in his career to put up 7 more 1,000+ yard seasons for the Jets. It's hard to imagine a presence like that at the running back spot along with guys like Brady, Moss, and Welker as part of the New England offense over the years, and how many more titles that might have added.
Allowing Asante Samuel to leave is widely considered to be the single biggest mistake of Bill Belichick's tenure in New England. The cornerback had been a steady presence on the secondary in New England for 5 seasons after being drafted 120th overall by the team, and had eventually taken over for Pro Bowl CB Ty Law, becoming a pro bowler himself in the process.
Samuel was a rising star in the Patriots' system, having grabbed 22 interceptions, 16 in his last two years in the Patriot uniform. On the flip side of this, his last season with the Patriots was a somewhat tumultuous one, as he started the preseason as a holdout, unhappy over the franchise tag the Patriots had placed on him instead of the long term deal he had hoped for.
After he signed that franchise tag, the Patriots showed him they simply weren't interested in signing him long term, letting him walk the following year while most of their fans stood by watching, our jaws on the ground. Since that time Samuel has recorded 13 interceptions and 75 tackles while starting 31 games as a Philadelphia Eagle.
There it is, the best and the worst of the free agency period for the Patriots in the "Era of the Bill's". So far this season has been a nail biter, as we saw other teams try to tempt several Patriot players (Leigh Bodden, Jarvis Green, and others) and so far all potential suitors have failed. We hope to see several additions to the former part of this list, while hoping the latter half doesn't grow anymore in the coming weeks and months.