Ahhhh to be the champs.
The New England Patriots, coming off of their 4th Super Bowl championship in the past 14 years, have had quite an interesting offseason to this point. As many successful teams in the NFL find, the strain of the salary cap has forced the Pats to make some very tough decisions this offseason. The Pats have been a perennial contender for the better part of a decade and a half, using a specific strategy of not overpaying players and allowing players to walk away a year early, as opposed to a year too late. This offseason the team has allowed several players to walk through free agency leaving portions of the team that, during the run to the Super Bowl were considered strengths, now even the biggest homer would consider weaknesses. At the end of the day the Pats still have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, but is that enough to make a run at Super Bowl number 5? Let’s dive into the offseason moves and decisions of the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots.
We’ll start with the big fish Darrelle Revis.
Darelle Revis is the best cornerback in football. During Revis’s last year with the Jets, and following year with the Tampa Bay Bucs, the crown of best corner in football was bestowed upon players such as Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, and Joe Haden. All three of those guys are tremendous all-pro caliber players that are at the top of their games and in their primes. But Revis is a whole different story and his year with the Patriots showed just that.
Revis helped to transform the Patriots secondary from one that ranked in the bottom third of the league for several years before his arrival, to a secondary that was capable of winning a Lombardi Trophy. He is the most technically sound corner in football and that, coupled with his athletic ability, allowed him to shut down opposing #1 wide receivers often, and help boost the Pats to their Super Bowl win.
If you follow the Patriots you know that last offseason the Patriots signed Revis to what was essentially a 1-year, $12 million deal. The contract came with a team option for a second year at a whopping $20 million. Due to Revis’s signing bonus and other incentives involved in the deal, the cap hit that option was scheduled to be $25 million. That would have been the 3rd largest cap hit in the NFL behind Tony Romo and Drew Brees. While I sincerely believe that Revis is the best at his position in the NFL, he’s not worth that kind of money and cap hit, while at the same time having the ability to become a free agent at the end of next season. This is why Revis was released and allowed to reach the open market of free agency where the Jets quickly signed him to a 5-year, $70 million contract with an astounding $39 million Fully guaranteed. The Jets essentially backed the Brinks truck up and dumped money all over Revis, something the Pats were not willing to do. Instead the Pats stuck to their guns of not overpaying, especially for a 30 year-old corner with a reconstructed ACL. In my opinion they should have done everything to bring Revis back to this team, because I am a believer that Tom Brady only has a few more years of elite football left.
The Pats approach towards Revis was understandable, but he was still a player that completely changed the defense a year ago, and that will be sorely missed.
One of the reasons that the Pats were unable to re-sign Revis was because two days before the “official” start of free agency the Pats did open the checkbook, to re-sign Devin McCourty. McCourty signed for 5-years, $47.5 million.
Now just to clarify I absolutely love Devin McCourty and everything he has been for this team since coming into the league. He has rounded into an above average safety who has given up very few big plays since making the move to the free safety spot. I say this, because signing McCourty over Revis was a terrible, terrible decision.
McCourty is a great leader, but great leaders alone don’t win you championships. McCourty was here when the secondary was getting torched BEFORE the arrival of Revis and Brandon Browner. McCourty has what is perceived as great versatility, but the vast majority of last year he was used as a 1-high free safety, serving as help for the mostly man-coverage underneath. This is a job that very easily could have been passed on to a player such as Duron Harmon, or Logan Ryan if he was moved back to safety. The money spent on McCourty could have been easily thrown at Revis and this team would be in much better shape. This is an instance where I believe that Belichick’s loyalty to a draft pick, and a guy he likes, got the better of him.
McCourty is not a bad player by any means, but his average salary of $9.5 million per year would have been better spent retaining the services of the best corner in football.
Brandon Browner was the other piece that helped to transform the Pats secondary into one that could win a Super Bowl. Browner’s size and physicality made it so that the Pats could play an aggressive man-coverage defense, and never really have a matchup disadvantage. Browner racked up what seemed like a million penalties in his nine game regular season and post season run and I for one could not have cared less about a single one.
His aggressive man coverage put pressure on opponents’ receivers and that was a welcomed change to what Pats fans had dealt with for the previous 4 or 5 years. Browner was released and signed with the New Orleans Saints for 3-years and $15 million dollars, with about half of that money guaranteed. His previous contract with the Pats was right around those figures and his departure makes the gaping hole that Revis left that much bigger. As a fan base we are all anxious to see how Belichick finds a way to patch those holes up.
Shane Vereen went into this past season knowing that he would soon be able to test the waters of unrestricted free agency and he posted his best pro season to date. He stayed healthy for the full 16-game season and capped the year off with 11 all-important catches in the Super Bowl. Despite him having such a good year, it is completely understandable that the Pats let Vereen walk. During his 4-year Patriot career, Vereen accumulated 907 total rushing yards.
Vereen is a pass-catching running back whom the New York Giants will be paying $4 million per year for the next 4 years. There is a very good chance that all the Patriots’ running backs salaries combined next year won’t reach $4 million. Vereen was great for us, but paying him that money to be a receiving back was simply not in the cards. Thank you Shane Vereen for what you did for us but see ya later.
Seeing Big Vince leave was very bittersweet as a fan of the Patriots. Wilfork has been a mainstay in the middle of the Pats defense for the last decade. What was clear though, was that over the past 4 or 5 years Vince had lost a step and was clearly not the All-Pro caliber player that he had been in the past.
Last offseason the Pats asked Wilfork to take a pay cut, which he did, in order for another chance to win a Super Bowl. He took the pay cut and was one of the central leaders for this, the 4th edition of the Super Bowl champion Pats. This offseason the Pats again approached Wilfork to take a pay cut and this time he refused and decided to go into free agency. Recently, he signed on to play for the Houston Texans on a 2-year, $9 million contract.
Vince leaves a space that is likely to be filled by the likes of Sealver Siliga, Alan Branch (newly re-signed), and last year’s first round pick Dominique Easley. If Easley is able to stay healthy, and that is obviously a big if, then the Pats will be just fine in the middle of the defensive line. This is the rare move that works out for both sides. We’ll see you when you’re ready to retire Big Vince and you’ll land in our hall of fame for sure.
With some big names leaving, the Patriots have a lot of holes to fill and question marks to generate an answer for.
New faces signed for the 2015 season are TE Scott Chandler, RB Travaris Cadet, CB’s Robert McClain and Bradley Fletcher, and DE/OLB Jabaal Sheard. All those additions have the potential to be contributors and I especially like the signings of Sheard and Chandler. Both are seasoned vets who have the potential to fit right into our system. I’m less thrilled about the Cornerback signings as neither player had especially good years last year, Fletcher in particular (look up the second Cowboys vs Eagles game). The moves at corner seem to be a movement back to a lot of passive zone defense in the secondary which didn’t really work, and made the need to upgrade to a Darelle Revis type apparent. The Sheard signing really bolsters our front seven, which looks like where we will try to have our playmakers on defense.
It will be very interesting to see how Belichick moves Jarod Mayo back into the lineup with the emergence of Dont’a Hightower, and especially Jamie Collins. After Mayo was injured, the Pats used mostly a 4-2-5 base alignment, meaning 4 down lineman, 2 linebackers and 5 defensive backs, with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich as defensive ends, and Hightower and Collins as inside linebackers. Bringing Mayo back into the fray could cause some disruptions to the front 7.
In the first game of last season, the Pats were roughed up by the Miami Dolphins, most of it coming from RB Knowshon Moreno. Moreno had so much success because the Pats, with their glut of linebackers, used a base 3-4 defense with Hightower and Ninkovich at OLB and Collins and Mayo at ILB. My fear is that they attempt to back to something like this and end up getting torched. Something to look out for would be for Mayo to either significantly restructure his contract, or to be traded before the offseason is over.
At the end of the day the Patriots still have arguably the greatest QB and coach of all time, and having those two staples gives them the ability to cover up many weakness. There are many issues for the Patriots to address through the rest of free agency and the draft, let’s all hope Belichick has some more tricks up his cutoff sleeves. In Bill we trust.