Thursday, March 6, 2014

A Call To Arms: Legal Tampering Edition - Retaining your own a priority

Good players like LeGarrette Blount know that there is a way to win and to get paid at the same time.
Every football player that gets released from another NFL team or who is a pending unrestricted free agent is headed to the New England Patriots - or at least that's the way it seems as excitement builds on social media with each roster move that breaks.

And why not?  After all, they are the model franchise and have been annual participants in the playoffs going on 15 years now - so if you want to win, Foxborough is a slam dunk.  But if you're in it just for the money, the Patriots are not your team.

Not that the Patriots don't pay out - though their public perception is that of Ebenzer Scrooge giving the shaft to 53 Bob Cratchits - they just have a budget and a value assigned to each position, leaving the onus on the player to decide whether he wants to win or wants to chase the money - and it's very easy to differentiate between the two.

And then there are those who want both, but since ultimate success is such a fleeting thing and money is everywhere, most of the players that have cashed in with a winner are those who stay with the team that wanted them in the first place.

Some may want a fresh start with a different atmosphere, some may simply wish the chance to start when the opportunity doesn't exist on their current team - any way you slice it, it's still a matter of job satisfaction and subject to constantly evolving motivation.

But it's more than that.

Bill Belichick gets a lot of heat from fans and media alike for his perceived drafting woes, but when it comes to bringing in high-profile, immediate impact free agents, his track record is far more abysmal - why, just in the past two offseasons, Belichick and his personnel advisers have made some free agent moves which could be considered highly curious...

...some would say disastrous, what with letting Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead get away while signing the likes of Leon Washington, Adrian Wilson, Tommy Kelly and Danny Amendola - three of the four aging veterans who were nowhere to be seen on the Patriots' active roster by year's end.

The year before that?  Steve Gregory, Michael Hoomanawanui and Brandon Lloyd and the Jonathan Fanene fiasco.  2011 brought Chad Ochocinco and Marcus Stroud and the trade with the Redskins for the doomed Albert Haynesworth - and in the years before that came Alge Crumpler, Leigh Bodden, Shawn Springs and Adelius Thomas.

Nothing is perfect, but Belichick's track record in the draft is far more amicable, yet a majority of fans and media overlook the successes and focus on the failures.

Since 2008, Belichick has drafted 28 players who are still on the team, comprising half of the team's 53 man roster in 2013, including 16 starters - and also in that period of time, he has picked up six players off the waiver wire, signed six free agents and 11 undrafted rookies and brought in three players in trades with other teams who are still on the roster.

What does all of this tell us?  Well, given that the 53 man roster for 2013 had 41 players on it that started their career in New England as rookies- that's 77 percent - with only six free agents signed from other teams, it's obvious as to how the Patriots prefer to build their roster, and equally obvious that Belichick is far more adept at finding good players in the draft evaluation process than judging how a free agent fits the team's needs.

That said, is there a breakdown in scouting that causes so many misses in free agency or is it simply a matter of what Baltimore Ravens' general manager Ozzie Newsome calls making your team better "from the inside, out"?

A perfect example of defying this thinking came last season with the Wes Welker soap opera when, during the legal tampering period, Belichick was able to gauge the market for Welker rather easily, which fit within the budget restraints that he and his cap wizards had already determined - but when Welker and his agent balked at the offer, Belichick didn't hesitate in pulling the trigger on the Danny Amendola deal.

In retrospect, the Patriots could have sweetened the deal for Welker - with team owner Bob Kraft saying as much at the league meetings in Phoenix just days afterward - but Welker's mouth and manic number-crunching by his agent left him out in the cold with only an offer from Denver on the table.

Why?  Mainly because Belichick is respected around the NFL for his ability to set the market, and only the Broncos' megalo-maniacal general manager John Elway was willing to go above and beyond - but not by much, which left Welker looking like a jaded gold digger.

In the end, as we saw with Welker's performance in Denver, he is what the experts call a "system fit", someone that should have been retained by New England and someone who should have known that his best place was in Foxborough - but bridges were burned by both parties, and a valuable lesson can be taken from the episode on both sides.

So, the Patriots have a budget and have assessed and placed a price on what each and every player at each and every position is worth to the bottom line, and they will stick to it - but first and foremost will attempt to retain the players that they know are system fits, and these players would be wise to at least acknowledge that their best fit is in a Patriots' uniform.

It has nothing to do with loyalty and everything to do with business - and with the 2014 draft being stocked with so many underclassmen that it's become the deepest draft of this century, it would behoove players like Julian Edelman and Sealver Siliga to jump on offers from the Patriots, both because their talents fit Belichick's systems and because they can be replaced by far less expensive options in the draft.

But a player like Aqib Talib, whose market price was set by the Miami Dolphins when they paid $8 million a year to keep cornerback Brent Grimes on their roster, could go to virtually any team willing to pay him Grimes-like money or more - because true shutdown corners don't come along every day...

...same with big bruising running backs like LeGarrette Blount, but because of how running backs have consistently been devalued in the market due to an overemphasis on the passing game in the NFL, they are more easily retained, and Blount will most likely be re-signed by New England with a middle-of-the-road contract to be the four-minute-offense specialist and part-time bell-cow.

So, what we can expect to see in free agency is the Patriots retaining the players that they can after assessing their price range during the legal tampering period beginning this Saturday - Blount and Siliga figure to be re-signed quickly - then to offer contracts to Edelman and Talib that fall near what their market value turns out to be without damaging the integrity of the team's budget.

Will the team raise the stakes if a bidding war ensues?  If it's a matter of just a workable amount, perhaps - but the market for Edelman isn't going to be as high as what is being lamented in the media, while someone is going to offer Talib an over-the-top contract.

Both players have expressed a desire to stay in Foxborough, so now it's time to see if these guys are in it for the money, or in it to win.  If they are smart, with the Patriots they can have both.

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