All Roads Lead to Foxborough
Patriots stockpiling players, gaining edge in AFC
Posted: Tuesday March 20, 2007 1:34PM; Updated: Wednesday March 21, 2007 6:22PM
The text messages from free-agent wide receiver Donte' Stallworth to his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, began enthusiastically on the first night of his visit to New England, after Patriots quarterback Tom Brady happened by Stallworth's table at a Boston restaurant on March 5 to preach the team's gospel. By the next day, as Stallworth was meeting in Foxborough with Pats officials, the texts to Rosenhaus revealed a man whose mind was made up. I want to be here. Let's get it done. I don't want to leave here without a contract.
It should surprise no one that prime free agents would want to join a franchise that has won three of the past six Super Bowls. What is unusual is that they'd take less money to play for one with so much salary-cap room. And it's stranger still to see the Patriots playing the free-agency game as aggressively as coach Bill Belichick plays defense. In their eight years of team-building, Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli have mostly been bargain-basement shoppers: The 20 free agents who formed the bedrock of the first championship team (such as linebacker Mike Vrabel) came from the lower and middle echelons.
But in the first 11 days of free agency this year the Pats signed five players off other rosters, including Stallworth, the Philadelphia Eagles long-ball threat, and linebacker Adalius Thomas of the Baltimore Ravens, the best linebacker on the market; traded for the Miami Dolphins' productive receiver-return man Wes Welker; re-signed three of their own free agents; and placed the franchise tag on cornerback Asante Samuel, all but assuring that the 2006 NFL coleader in interceptions (10) will be in New England for at least one more season. "I'm stunned," says a rival scout. "But it just goes to show you -- anytime you think you've got the Patriots figured out, they go and do something no one expects."
New England's flurry of activity doesn't signify a shift in philosophy. Rather it was the result of a perfect storm of team needs, available players, available cash ($23 million under a salary cap of $109 million) and a more conservative approach by teams such as the New York Giants and Jets, the Green Bay Packers and the Carolina Panthers that are usually aggressive bidders. "Believe me, we've made a lot of calls the first day of free agency every year," Belichick said last Friday. "This year was just different. We pursued guys we needed, and they wanted to come."
Belichick's linebacking corps looked old and slow when the Indianapolis Colts racked up 32 points and 311 yards in the second half of the Pats' AFC title-game loss. So they signed Thomas to a five-year deal at an average of $7 million a year, the same salary that three guards received in this off-season of NFL largesse. The 6'2", 270-pound Thomas is so versatile -- with Baltimore he could line up on the D-line and even in the secondary -- that some teams feared he might be less productive strictly as a linebacker. "We change what we do lots of weeks," Belichick says. "We're a game-plan team. For us, a player can't have too much versatility. We'll find a way to use him."
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