Monday, March 17, 2014

Reloading the Musket - Patriots not going "all in", merely making deft usage of cap

Despite opinions to the contrary, the Patriots are not going all in to win another championship before Tom Brady's time is done - they are simply posturing themselves to take advantage of the incremental increases due on the salary cap for the next three years...

...because for the first time in the Bob Kraft / Bill Belichick era the Patriots have been able to splurge on a top talent without straying from their business philosophy - a philosophy that has had media and fans labeling the team as being "cheap", despite going to the AFC Championship game in eight out of Belichick's 13 years as the bench boss - an unrivaled ratio of success.
Could LaFell's blocking prowess signal a shift in offensive philosophy?

More than any other time in league history, the promise of expanding salary caps in the foreseeable future and the lack of ambiguity to that end have given team ownership and management a clear picture of where their salary caps will be set for the next three years - and as a result, teams who stay true to their business philosophy can now reward themselves by going after top talent without strapping their bottom line.

There is no arms race with Denver, as the media would have us believe.

The cap merely being set at $133 million for 2014 wouldn't have been high enough for New England to make the deals that that they have thus far in free agency, not without the promise of incremental $10 million increases in 2015 and 2016, enabling team's defacto general manager Bill Belichick to back load a couple of contracts...

...but within reason, as prudence dictates that money must be made available for extending a few contracts and for re-signing players coming to the satisfaction of their rookie deals.  Just as long as Belichick doesn't go hog-crazy in free agency, he has left himself plenty of monopoly money to negotiate those deals plus easily slide all of their 2014 draft picks into the mix.

All around the league, teams are signing free agents to two and three year deals, as far as any dare extend them without the crystal ball being able to see league revenue any further than that - the exception being teams locking up offensive and defensive linemen for more years as safer investments - and the Patriots fit right into that philosophy:

Darrelle Revis and Michael Hoomanawanui for two years, Brandon Browner, Brandon LaFell and Julian Edelman for three, so you can bet that any deal forwarded to LeGarrette Blount will be within those parameters as well.

The lone exception is the second year option on Revis' contract which is in place so that the team can't slap the franchise tag on him in 2015 - smart for both sides because as salaries continue to grow, the franchise tag number will as well and will probably be in the range of $13 million for cornerbacks next season, so if Revis and the Patriots wish to continue their relationship after this season, the contract gives plenty of incentive to both parties to get a long-term deal done.

That said, the reason why New England is so active in free agency is as easily answered as the reason why they went after who they did - which also gives us some insight as to what may be coming next for the boys from Foxborough.

The talent in New England has been undeniable - when healthy - as evidenced by their three consecutive appearances in the AFC Championship Game - but the talent did not go quite deep enough, as evidenced by their two consecutive loses in the title tilt by double digits, no less.

The reason, of course, is the fact that the Patriots were already into their second level on the depth chart at critical positions - in both instances a broken Rob Gronkowski and Aqib Talib's glass hip (or quad, depending on what you want to believe) combined to spell doom for New England...

...not that those were the only reasons - quarterback Tom Brady playing poorly and the defense not able to get off the field on third down consistently played major roles in both defeats - but both injuries contributed greatly.

Brady? Well, the team lives and dies with their future Hall of Fame quarterback and, being human, he is going to have his ups and downs - what the Patriots are concentrating on is ensuring that they can overcome the "downs" in critical spots.

By the time the Patriots got to Denver for the AFC Championship game last January, Brady's receiving corps was a shell of what it should have been, with Edelman, journeyman Austin Collie and "rookie wall" victim Kenbrell Thompkins their only healthy receivers - and with no seam stretching tight end to take the safties' attention, the Broncos concentrated on shutting down the Patriots' running game on defense...

...and picking apart their secondary on offense once cornerback Aqib Talib went down with whatever his injury really was.  The Broncos never went after the big play, content with running the clock and kicking field goals, thereby limiting the number of opportunities that Brady had to work his magic - and by the time he found his stride in the game, it was too late.

Fortunately, with the cap numbers going up and the fact that the team was thrifty enough to roll about $4 million over from last season, the Patriots have methodically gone about ensuring that the horrors of the past two title game meltdowns won't - or shouldn't - happen again.

In Revis and Browner, Belichick gets arguably the best corner in the game today and a starting quality corner that has the experience of being the target in Seattle for opposing quarterbacks opposite Richard Sherman, so he is primed and used to seeing the majority of footballs coming to his side - long-term it also allows rising star Logan Ryan the opportunity to be mentored by both while still getting maxed out reps in New England's nickle "base".

Suddenly, there is an overflow of cornerbacks in Foxborough, as Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington bring the total to five the number of starting caliber corners - likely bringing about a question of whether Bill would be inclined to include one in a package deal to make a move in the draft - either that or run with just two safeties and rotate one high.

But that kind of stuff is to be decided down the road - as right now it is just speculative daydreaming, as is the status of the receiving corps on offense.

With the re-signing of Julian Edelman, the Patriots have accomplished this season what they could not last: Give Brady a comfortable base from which to begin his progression with the receivers.  All he had to begin last season was an unproven Edelman and a huddle full of new faces - courtesy of Wes Welker's defection to Denver.

The learning curve for the entire offense was a work in progress all season long as the passing game struggled to find it's wings, which was clearly evident from the play calling to the execution - until the receivers became so banged up that Belichick turned to his power running game, and suddenly the offense had a consistency that was missing for the first three-quarters of the season.

Realizing that he was bringing back all of last season's receivers which, when healthy, has tremendous upside and toughness, Belichick's sole move in the corps was to bring in a big possession receiver in LaFell and to bring back in-line tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, perhaps giving an indication of what to expect from the offense this season, with LaFell's excellence in run blocking mixed with Hooman's...

...and if we see a LeGarrette Blount signing in the near future, that would seem to confirm that the Patriots plan to be a balanced, power football offense, setting up the pass with the run and moving away from the tight end-centric entity that they attempted to be with a Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but couldn't be because of Gronkowski and Hernandez.

With these moves, the Patriots' salary cap situation has reached the point where they shouldn't sign any more high profile players and concentrate solely on the draft and improving the team from within.

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