Thursday, March 5, 2015

Patriots Willing To Let Market Set Price On Free Agents

In 2013, it was Wes Welker.  In 2014, Julian Edelman.

2015?  Well it would appear that the New England Patriots are willing to employ a familiar hit-or-miss tactic to decide a free agent's dollar value to the team, and the first contestant is Vince Wilfork.

The Patriots have informed Wilfork that they will not be picking up his $8 million option for 2015, instantaneously making the two-time Super Bowl Champion a free agent, but he is just the tip of a 15 player iceberg that the team is willing to let test the waters of free agency.
Big Vince could be back at a more team-friendly cap number

Welker got mouthy and took himself a little too seriously back in 2013 just as the free agency period was about to begin, and after listening to his Wrath of Khan soliloquies about how the Patriots were trying to low ball him on a contract offer, they set back and watched Welker's market dwindle to just about nothing, but by the time Welker returned to Foxborough with a grand total of one offer for his services and offered to let the Patriots match it, Danny Amendola already had taken his locker.

The Patriots are good at this game.  They sign players based on what they project their production will be and pay them accordingly.  It's far from an exact science, but they're right more often than not and the result is a roster full of solid role players that have been underused or misused in other systems, and when their money demands outweigh their usefulness, the team has a very clear track record of showing those players the door...

...and very few ever approach the level of success that they had in Foxborough, neither as an individual nor in realized team goals - and there are two schools of though as to why.

Most subscribe to the theory that is easiest for most fans to process, in that Belichick is just so good at squeezing every ounce of effort and talent out of his players, and then when they're all used up, he releases them - but the reality of it is that Belichick brings in players whom he envisions a specific role on his team, and when they subsequently perform that role, their free agency value goes up as well.

But once they test the waters, they find that Belichick's role for them was unique to his philosophies and schemes, and didn't necessarily guarantee the same level of success in another system.

It's about winning in Foxborough.  In his 15 years as Head ball coach and defacto General Manager, Bill Belichick has won 12 AFC East division titles, won six AFC Conference titles and won four of the six Super Bowls that they have played in - and has done so with a system in which he values the role of each player on the team from one to fifty three to the point that each has a vested ownership into his philosophy.

But once money enters the picture, it alters the outlook.

Last season, while Julian Edelman was finding no suitors at all in free agency, the team was asking nose tackle Vince Wilfork to restructure his contract to provide some relief for the cap-starved Patriots, but his initial response of causing a scene in the locker room and subsequent silent treatment toward the team apparently was enough for the Patriots to avoid that scene altogether this offseason.

The release of Wilfork from his contract avoided the messiness of asking the player to restructure and lets Wilfork test the free agent waters for the first time in his career - and it is very likely that he will find suitors around the league, and once those offers are made, it is possible that the team approaches five-time Pro Bowl selection with what the market deems as a fair offer.

And that's the rub.  Rather than cause hard feelings between management and player, the Patriots have always been a team that allows the market to set the price for a player, then they decide whether the price is right for them.

Some big names are up for free agency from the Super Bowl Champions, and it appears that they are all going to be herded into the market like steers at an auction - and all of this begins on Saturday with the three day window-shopping spree known as the "Legal Tampering Period", when teams can have contact with the agents of the players in order to assess what the market is looking like.

Teams with a need for a certain player can indicate what they'd like to offer for his services, but can not have contact with the player, nor can any agreement be reached - only talking between teams and agents can take place, which is advantageous to New England in that if the price is close to what the Patriots feel is a good deal for both sides, they will set a counter-offer before free agency actually begins on Tuesday.

Does this mean Wilfork will be back?  Not necessarily, but it does mean that the ball is rolling in establishing at what price he could be back for.

Same goes for safety Devin McCourty, running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley and twelve other players scheduled for free agency - and chances are that some team is going to fall in love with one of all of them and blow their socks off by overpaying them.  There's a few teams out there that have lots of cap dollars to spend.

And, truthfully, that could have been the Patriots had they not issued a $25 million "placeholder" team option on cornerback Darrelle Revis for 2015, a cap number so ridiculously lewd that it's almost pornographic.  Granted, Revis was a key member of a team that won the World Championship, but as was mentioned, the team pays for future production, not for past successes.

If New England can not reach a long-term extension with Revis by Tuesday at 4:00pm eastern time, they will either have to pick up that team option and fork over a $12.5 million roster bonus to the shutdown corner, or release him into free agency.  The cap savings, in addition to the money saved by releasing Wilfork, will place the Patriots approximately $19 million under the salary cap...

...and while that would be plenty to re-sign just about everyone else, Belichick also has to focus on the long-term and plan for 2016, when names like Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower come up for a payday, so they can't afford to handcuff themselves with contracts that are going to spill over into big dollars by back loading signing bonuses and such - and that includes any pending deal with Revis, who is likely to have Jets' owner Woody Johnson sending over trucks full of cash if he does indeed hit free agency.

Even so, Belichick is rightfully content to sit back and let the other 31 teams in the National Football league set the market price for his free agents.  He wants them to shop around, get their best price.  Then if they are so inclined, come back and give the Patriots a chance to match or exceed it - and they know that they have a home with New England if they so desire.

What kind of market will there be for Wilfork?  His days as a force in the middle of a defensive line are numbered, but certainly not over - but the wear and tear of his long tenure mixed in with his achelles tear in 2013 is going to drive the number down, and no one is going to give him any more than two or three years with injury clauses - and if he bites, so be it, but logic dictates that he's going to make the right call for his family - which may or may not be about the money this time around.

His home is in Foxborough,  His kids go to school and all of their friends are here.  He and his wife have invested countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars to causes in the community that they feel deeply about, and he knows that in the end, team owner Bob Kraft loves him, respects him and will take care of him.

Will that be enough for him to come back on a team-friendly deal?  Perhaps and probably at the same time, but younger players like McCourty, Vereen and Ridley are coming up on their first big payday and may not be around after Tuesday.

But that all depends on the NFL teams, and the prices they set for each player on the market.

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