Sunday, March 12, 2017

Money Not Biggest Reason Players Depart From New England In Free Agency

Martellus Bennett signed with the Green Bay Packers for $6 million per year.  Jaball Sheard and Barkevious Mingo went to Indianapolis for $7.5 million and $2.5 million, respectively.  Chris Long just left with no forwarding address.

While it is not known what, if anything, was offered to Sheard or Mingo or Long, we do know that Bennett was offered $1 million more per year to sign an extension with New England before the start of the 2016 season - his reason?  Well, we didn't know until now, and it's the same reason why the other three left.

Playing time - or in Bennett's case, touches.

Long said as much in his farewell tweet to the fans of New England, as he had been long-used to being on the field in a full-time role with the Rams, but when he and Sheard were relegated to situational roles as part of the Patriots' overall defensive scheme, it was only a matter of time before their attitudes got the best of them.

For Sheard, that happened in late November when he was benched and left behind on the Patriots' west coast trip, but Long stuck it out, won his ring, and now wants to end his likely Hall of Fame career somewhere that he can contribute more than he did with New England.  Both players finished the season strong, both contributed to the epic Super Bowl comeback and both can be proud of their efforts.

Mingo played only 54 defensive snaps in his time in Foxborough, but contributed mightily on special teams, though collecting just four tackles - it was a role he played similarly in Cleveland before Belichick traded for him in the preseason, and one that he hopes to build on in Indianapolis.

That said, Mingo had no option but to suit up for New England as he arrived via trade, but Long and Sheard both knew the score when they signed.

The Patriots have long been known for situational rotation in their front seven, a philosophy that, along with Belichcik's intense, season-long, after practice conditioning program is designed to keep his bigs up front fresh for the fourth quarter, has been the difference between winning and losing close games - a philosophy that manifested it's success this past post-season.

The philosophy, known loosely in it's entirety as "Bend but don't break", saw New England's defense take their opponent's best shot in the first half and yielding an average of 14 points while their foe was still fresh - but when their opponent begins to tire in the second half, the Patriots' rotation on defense starts to manifest and the result in the playoffs saw them give up just a miserly 6 points.

And teams that have quick strike offenses - like the Atlanta Falcons, for example - are at a particular disadvantage, as their philosophies tend to keep their time of possession down and puts their defense back on the field before they are properly rested.

It has worked that way for years, and it's no secret - and while one has to wonder why other teams in the league don't employ such a proven tactic, the answer is very simple: most other teams employ players who are bigger names that have egos requiring maximum playing time to satiate, piling up stats as they go along. Even the Patriots' secondary follows a loose rotation in which the corners switch up coverages so as not to be run ragged by deep threats and the safeties in the Big Nickel take on added responsibility.

So defensive players coming to New England understand that, for the most part, they are going to have to share the wealth as far as playing time, and stats be damned.

But what about Bennett?  The self-titled "Black Unicorn" enjoyed the most successful season of his career by far, and also enjoyed the best catch percentage of his career, but his overall statistics told a story of a man limited by the offensive scheme, one that employs a certain All Pro named Rob Gronkowski, who is ready and raring to go when the 2017 season begins...

...not to mention that he was competing for touches with names such as Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and passing back James White, with Edelman and White easily outdistancing him with targets and catches, and Gronkowski was on pace to obliterate Bennett's targets and catches as well before suffering a season-ending back injury.

Now, however, Bennett is going to a place where he will be the playmaking tight end and catching balls from a magician named Aaron Rogers in an offense that saw it's tight ends catch a combined 60 passes last season.

Green Bay let primary tight end Jared Cook leave in free agency, then signed former-Ram Lance Kendricks to compliment Bennett, much the same way Bennett complimented Gronkowski in New England - and one has to wonder if Bennett was on board with the decision to bring Kendricks in, knowing that the six-year veteran will be cutting into his touches.

Regardless, the deed has been done and Bennett is a Green Bay Packer.  He has earned to right to go where he wishes and he couldn't have landed in a better spot outside of New England.

In the end, all of this answers Patriots' fans' questions like why the team doesn't normally sign big-name players when there are so many on the open market.  It's not always a matter of cap space, nor simply a matter of compensation, overall - instead, it comes down to a matter of patience in the front office, letting the market dictate a player's worth and allowing them to slide down the scale...

...not so much to limit the amount that they pay a player, but to give the Patriots leverage in negotiations while selling their philosophy.

Thus far in free agency, New England has lost a couple of players, re-signed most of their core players, and have been selective in offering contracts to players on the market, with only cornerback Stephon Gilmore and defensive end Lawrence Guy having been added to the roster.  The rest of the new blood have entered the region via trade, having been identified as players that Belichick can further build his game plans around... the same time absorbing mostly team-friendly salaries, which makes all of them the sort of low-risk, high-reward rotational role players that make the Patriots annual contenders - and five-time Super Bowl champions in the Belichick era.

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