Thursday, March 26, 2015

Reloading The Musket - Part 2: Patriots' Backfield Full Of One-Dimensional Talent...Except One

The New England Patriots run the football with a purpose.

That purpose can change from game-to-game and, indeed, quarter to quarter, but there are two consistencies that head ball coach Bill Belichick and boy-wonder offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can always count on:  They can always run the ball effectively to close out a game, and they never leave themselves limited in what they can do on the ground by slacking on options.
Gaffney has the tools to be an every down back for New England

The four-minute offense is a staple of Belichick's concept-driven version of the team's Erhardt-Perkins philosophy that carries with it the axiom, "Pass to score, run to win."

What this means, in a nutshell, is that New England will use it's redundant and aesthetically displeasing ball-control passing game to gain a lead, then use the even more redundant and aesthetically displeasing running game to grind out the clock to ensure victory.

Which is the point, after all.  It may not be all that explosive to the layman's eye, but to those who get off on fundamental football and get just as excited over a power run that picks up three yards and a first down as they do a 40 yard strike for a touchdown, it is a beautiful thing - and in the end and looking up at the scoreboard, one has to marvel at how many points the Patriots have put up with such a methodical, clock-control attack.

As a result, fantasy owners avoid the New England running backs like the plague - and for good reason as the Patriots' leading rusher in 2014 was second-year man Jonas Gray, a project that Belichick activated from the practice squad just in time to turn him loose on the defensively challenged Indianapolis Colts, against whom he gained half of his 412 yards on the season.

The other backs?  Well, power back Stevan Ridley was on pace for a decent year as the lead back until he ripped his knee to shreds in week 6, while third down back Shane Vereen chipped in with 391 and week 11 pick up LeGarrette Blount added almost 300 more - yet, despite the lack of a true number one back, and Belichick's seeming lack of interest in labeling one, the Patriots still won the Super Bowl.

That's not a recipe for success on any other team but New England, and it's hard to argue with their sustained success over the past decade that Belichick has been running with the same M.O. - and there's no reason to believe that their philosophy is going to change now, no matter how bitchy and whiny the laymen and unindoctrinated become...

...even in light of the free agency and injury hits the Patriots have taken early in the NFL's annual shopping spree.  Of the backs on the team in 2014, all but two are under contract for 2015 - with both Ridley and Vereen left to test the free agency waters.  Ridley has yet to find work, as his knee injury has severely limited his market, but Vereen is already gone.

There has been much lamentation and gnashing of teeth in regard to the Patriots losing passing back Shane Vereen in free agency, and while the 4th year man from California saved his best performance as a Patriot for his last performance as a Patriot, it also holds true that the Patriots knew that there was a good chance that they would lose Vereen, and would have made an effort to re-sign him were his replacement wasn't already on the roster.

Doomsayers will point to his 52 receptions in the regular season being irreplaceable, and that number does rank among in the top five among running backs in 2014, but Vereen was also the only of those backs whose primary duties encompassed the passing game, while the backs in front of him were all lead backs.

This is not to discount how effective Vereen became as the season wore on, but it also has to be remembered that Vereen's production in 2014 had more to do with him being able to maintain his health throughout the season than anything else, as his talent was always evident, but was something that his durability couldn't match consistently.

Vereen ran effectively and was fearless between the tackles, but his value to the Patriots was as more of a pass catcher, as he lacks the size to be an every down, workhorse type back - causing him to be one-dimensional and the New England offense somewhat more predictable as to their play calling on third down.

In fact, the Patriots' running backs all have defined skill sets that make them one-dimensional - and therefore causing the play-calling to be somewhat predictable - what with LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray being strictly power backs, James White and newly acquired Tavaris Cadet as third down presences, while Brandon Bolden's value to the team is primarily as a core-four special teamer...

...which leaves redshirt sophomore Tyler Gaffney as the lone multi-tool back for New England going into the draft.  Picked up off the waiver wire last preseason when the Carolina Panthers tried to slip him onto their IR with a torn lateral meniscus, Gaffney has no NFL experience, but was an absolute load in carrying the football at Stanford before the Panthers spent a 6th round flier on a kid that took a break from football after his junior season to concentrate on a baseball career after being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012.

But after one season in the Pirate's farm system he returned to Stanford and posted over 1700 yards and 21 touchdowns for the Cardinal.  One season with incredible numbers such as those raise eyebrows, but the concern over lack of experience on either the college or pro level has to be taken into account.

Which begs the question, will the Patriots target a running back in the draft?

With the experience of both Blount as a workhorse and Cadet as a third down back, the Patriots could start the regular season right now and run their offense without much of a decline in production, and there is plenty of competition behind those two to make camp interesting, but the main focus is probably going to be whether Gaffney can ascend to at least split time with those two.

If they think he can - or even if they have plans with White to take on a bigger role - then the Patriots will most likely focus their draft capital elsewhere.  But make no mistake, Belichick picked up Gaffney because he is multi-dimensional, which would make the offense a little less predictable and bring the play actions into play on every down as he has superb hands out of the backfield and is instinctive and tough in picking up the blitz.

Regardless, there are some prospects coming out of college that make up a decent draft class, and while running back should not be one of the Patriots' priorities, one can never say never when it comes to predicting what Belichick will do on draft day.

Realistically, names like Georgia's Todd Gurley and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon will be off the board long before New England selects at #32, and it's probably far-fetched to consider that they would take a back with their top pick anyway, which puts any running back prospect no earlier than the second day, and most likely on the third day of the draft.

Jay Ajayi - 6' 0", 221 lbs, Boise State (2nd - 3rd round)

Running for nearly 1700 yards and 25 touchdowns, Ajayi is Gaffney, but with James White type feet in the open field.  He has excellent hands, catching 45 balls for 436 yards and four more scores.  The Patriots could use his versatility and the rookie salary numbers that come with him, optimizing his skill set as a two-in-one threat with good speed and incredible balance.

The downside is that he has a tendency to put the ball on the ground, which is something that Belichick can and will crucify running backs for...

Duke Johnson - 5' 9", 205lbs, Miami (2nd - 3rd rounds)

Johnson would be higher on the boards if he was a willing blocker in pass protection, as he is a liability in this area. Electric, video game type moves with a second and third gear to gain the corner, Johnson is a powerful north - south runner when he needs to be and has the vision and fluid hips to cut back against the grain better than any runner in the class.

He struggled with injuries the past two seasons, so his durability is in question - and his aforementioned lack of blocking skills makes him one-dimensional and just a part-time player in the Patriots' scheme.

T. J. Yeldon - 6' 2", 222lbs, Alabama (2nd - 3rd round)

Yeldon has all of the tools to be as effective as Blount or his former Steelers' teammate LeVeon Bell, and has a similar running style, yet with a bit more speed.  Alabama trusted him to play three downs and many scouts have him as a better potential pro than Wisconsin's Gordon.  Though smooth coming out of the backfield and a monster between the tackles where he can make himself skinny and invisible to the second level, he runs too upright - like Ridley - and takes some nasty hits...also needs some work picking up the blitz, but is a willing participant in blocking schemes.

David Johnson - 6' 1", 224 lbs, Northern Iowa (3rd round)

A workout warrior who still shows enough on the field to warrant a second or third day selection.  Very smooth out of the backfield and with his size and speed is a matchup nightmare for linebackers and safeties in the pattern - is a capable Vereen-like runner with the bulk to carry inside, though he tends to break most everything outside.

Not a big finisher on his carries and blocking could use improvement, but overall Johnson could be a second day steal - as some even project that his skill set makes him more of an H-back in the right system.

Mike Davis - 5' 9", 217 lbs, South Carolina (3rd - 4th round)

A lead-type back who gets stronger as the game progresses, Davis needs 15-20 carries to get full value out of him.  A punishing north-south runner who initiates contact, he will pick up yards after contact and has long speed to take the ball to the house is he gains separation in the passing game.  Davis runs good routes and has good hands, and is an accomplished blocker in pass protection.

Others who could work include LSU running backs Terrence MaGee and Kenny Hilliard (4th rounders), Louisville power back Dominique Brown (4-5 round), North Dakota State's John Crockett (6th round) and Florida's Matt Jones (6th round), Mississippi State's Josh Robinson (7th - UDFA).

Perpetually among the most "average" running teams in the league, Statistics don't come close to telling of the full range of success the running backs in the Patriots' system enjoy, as winning trumps most things and winning Super Bowls trumps everything.

Last season was a perfect example, so don't expect the Patriots to mess with success very much, if at all.

Part 3 of this series looks at pass catchers in the draft and how the Patriots could improve their overall depth.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Reloading The Musket - Part 1: "We're On To 2015...."

If screenwriters in Hollywood were to write a football script about an epic comeback in the World Championship game, we'd expect a lot of non-essential and gratuitous swings of momentum, along with a cornucopia full of corny catch phrases and plenty of cliff hanging drama...

Belichick's field of dreams is in the past, now he's on to 2015...
Nothing better than watching human drama unfold, and Hollywood has known this for a long, long time - sports films are all about it, from classic re-enactments of the so-called "Miracle on Ice" and the friendship between Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo in "Brian's Song" to the fictional intensity of the Rocky series have captivated sports' fans for decades.

But when real-life drama unfolds on one of the largest stages on the planet, in front of hundreds of millions of television viewers world-wide and with the small town underdog ending up the shocking the unsuspecting audience by making perhaps the most clutch play in the Game's forty-nine year history, it's better than all of the Rocky fights put together.

And that's quite a feat, as the Rocky franchise has left it's brand on the world of sports for all the right reasons, which makes what the New England Patriots managed to pull out of their hoodies in Super Bowl XLIX all that more remarkable, though the two entities took decidedly different paths.

Rocky was the underdog, and loved by millions; the Patriots, universally despised, yet still with their legions of fans - both the unwavering and bandwagon-hopping alike.  New England has dominated the world of professional football since the turn of the century by employing the tried and true business sense of Robert Kraft with Belichick's insistence on treating the 53rd player on the roster the same as the franchise quarterback...

Kraft's business savvy has helped keep the team relevant
...and that 53rd player one week isn't necessarily the 53rd player for the next, as Belichick manipulates the roster to fit his weekly gameplan, and once that week's game is over, that game plan goes into the round file and a new one starts to take shape almost immediately.

Because that's the climate that Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft have built together in Foxborough - when they're done with one task, they're on to something else.  In week four they were trounced by the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football, but all Belichick would say about it is "We're on to Cincinnati,", their next opponent.

When the Patriots won the AFC Championship game, Belichick uttered the same now-iconic slogan, but this time they were on to Seattle and the Super Bowl - and now that the goal for the season has been accomplished, interviews given, trucks awarded, they are on to 2015, and just like it is with every game, what has happened in the past has no bearing on the task at hand...

...which, of course, is building a team for 2015 that has the opportunity to successfully defend that now-past tense title.  It's not easy, it never is and Belichick has never claimed that it was, but he makes it seem so from a fan perspective.

And fifteen years of that influence has changed the culture in Foxborough.  No longer do the fans hope for a good season, nor do they dream of the playoffs - they expect those things to happen because , truly, there have not been a nation of football fans that have been exposed to such a protracted string of excellence as Patriots' fans.

Young adults entering the workforce do not have a cognitive memory of the Patriots being anything but championship caliber.  Think about that for a second.  It takes the memory of fans entering their 30's to be able to recant with any clarity what it was like when the Patriots were so bad that nobody bothered to hate on them.

So it's them.  The Patriots franchise has built a football culture where winning is just about everything, but not at any cost - which is important to remember, especially when considering the team building process.

Up until last offseason, the Patriots had been fiscally conservative in free agency, signing only players that made sense on both a conceptual and financial level, the marriage of which has been the base of a philosophy that has kept New England a title contender for the past decade and a half - but then a rare free agency binge (or at least a binge in the Patriots' sense of the word), as they signed cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to what amounted to mercenary contracts.

Granted, there is a fourth Super Bowl trophy in one of those Zordon-esque tubes in the Hall at Patriots' Place in part because of them - and we'll never know if it would have happen without them, but history suggests that Belichick would have had his Patriots deep into January and making a push for February.

But that's not good enough in Patriots' Nation.

Trophies are the only things that make the nut in New England, and there is no tolerance for excuses or failure - but in varying from their tried and true business philosophy, the Patriots have put themselves in a precarious spot this offseason as Revis bolted for the Jets and running back Shane Vereen took his stated "Step up" from New England by signing with the Giants...

...Browner and Wilfork were systematically shown the door so that the salary cap-strapped Patriots could turn their attrition to gain just enough cap space to add some bit players while saving enough to sign their draft picks.

And that's it.  Most likely, they are done making moves in free agency and have turned their focus to the draft, where they will attempt to repair the damage done by straying from their philosophy, and if they play their cards right, the draft is deep in need areas for New England.

Because of the aforementioned attrition, the defensive line and cornerback positions have been deemed priorities in the 2015 NFL Draft, with offensive guard and coverage linebacker coming in a close second as the team moves on from their lone attempt at buying a title and getting back to the philosophy that builds a team using the rookie salary cap as a tool to keep their overall salary cap in a manageable state.

Already with the youngest team ever to win a Super Bowl, the Patriots are set to get even younger and all with an eye to the future as this upcoming draft may be the most important in the tenure of Bill Belichick in terms of stocking the team for the eventuality that comes with expiring contracts at key positions in 2016, including staples such as left tackle Nate Solder, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive end Chandler Jones.

Just those three names will put a heavy burden on the 2016 cap but, fortunately, the cap may be higher by about ten percent when that league year starts, which would just about make those contacts a given to remain in Foxborough - regardless, the draft is upcoming and with the unpredictable Belichick calling the shots, we're sure to have a few head scratchers...

In the following parts to this series, we will look at every position on the depth chart for New England, assess the needs at the positions and offer up suggestion as to which college players would fit the Patriot Way, and make an impact as a rookie - all while methodically building a big board leading up to next month's draft...

Next: Part II looks at the running back position and what impact the draft might have on the backfield.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Struggling Corners Find Takers In Patriots

Bradley Fletcher is one of the worst cornerbacks in the National Football league.

At least that's what Philadelphia Eagles fans will tell you, as the 6' 1", 200 pound defensive back out of Iowa became the whipping boy for the struggles of the entire Eagles' secondary last season, an abysmal collection of has-beens and never-will-be's...
Burned thrice by Bryant, Fletcher earned a spot on the bench...

Beaten relentlessly on double moves and endlessly lost on outside-in slants, ugly performances against Green Bay's Jordy Nelson, Dallas' Dez Bryant and Washington's DeSean Jackson epitomized the struggles, and were partially the result of the collective lack of talent in the Eagles' secondary - and partially the result of the coaching staff's failure to game plan to put their defensive backs in the best position to succeed.

And partially because he was being utilized improperly.

The straight poop on Fletcher coming out of college was almost universal in that he would have a much better success rate in the pros as a safety, as he consistently demonstrated that he was a far better defensive back having the play unfold in front of him where he could read-and-react, and was a potential detriment if forced to play with his back to the play...

...which is something that has manifested itself time and again in his time with first the Rams and then the Eagles, but for lack of a better option in either camp, he always came away a cornerback.  Not surprisingly, every secondary that he played in were loathsome to the fan base.

The Eagles have dumped both of their starting corners and versatile safety Nate Allen, with Allen landing with a multi-year deal in Oakland, cornerback Cary Williams emerging in Seattle to fill the void left by free agent Byron Maxwell and now the lightning rod for the passionate Philadelphia media and fans signing on with the Patriots.
McClain was just a bad fit in Atlanta's Big Nickle

Maxwell is now a well-paid member of the Eagles secondary, as is his oft-injured former Seahawks teammate Walter Thurmond, with a replacement for Allen most likely coming via the 2015 NFL Draft. 

It will be interesting to see how the new-look secondary works in Philadelphia with the same coaching staff, but it will be more interesting to see how New England Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick integrates his newly signed cornerback into a secondary that will have a decidedly new look as well.

Bradley signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract with the Patriots on Wednesday, the initial winner of a four-man competition to add veteran depth to the Patriots' secondary - but to hear the experts tell it, New England just wasted valuable cap capital on a guy who got burnt like so many unattended hot dogs on the grill last season.

Belichick doesn't see it that way.

Sure, Bradley could just be camp fodder, though teams normally don't give that kind of scratch to a camp body - but the smart money has Belichick platooning Bradley with his former Eagles teammate Patrick Chung, who performed well in his role as the Patriots strong safety last season, using Bradley the way God intended, as a box safety.

This notion feeds into the thought that the Patriots are preparing to flip the script from their philosophy with the now departed Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, who could provide blanket coverage on the top two weapons in the pattern and, in theory at least, should have provided the pass rush with an extra second or two to get to the quarterback.

It didn't really turn out that way, mostly because the Patriots were so bad at covering the running backs and tight ends coming underneath that an extra defensive back was still employed, sacrificing at least one pass rusher.  The result was still abysmal and sometimes embarrassing, as the opposing quarterback would stand  upright in the pocket and wait for someone to break free, which always happens eventually.

So the Patriots appear to be working toward resolution toward that end, signing rush linebacker Jaball Sheard while at the same time dumping the immovable yet seldom-penetrating nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who was rarely impactful in rushing the quarterback other than tying up double teams to allow a linebacker to shoot the gap that was created, but, again, underneath coverage woes precluded much blitzing...

...appearing set to enter the season with like-sized, yet able-penetrator Sealver Siliga at the nose, surrounded by rush tackles like Alan Branch, Chris Jones and Dominique Easley and ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich.  With linebackers Sheard, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo flying around on the second level, the Patriots' front seven appears to have the personnel they need to maintain a thick front seven.

Can they get to the quarterback?  That remains the big question in Foxborough, and the answer really lies in health, as both Easley and Mayo had their seasons cut short, landing on the team's Injured Reserved list.

That, however, does not solve the mystery as to why the Patriots can't cover a tight end or a running back to save their lives, and perhaps the primary reason why we're seeing retread corners coming in via free agency - with Fletcher a good candidate as a nickle safety, where he can read and react facing the quarterback, using his good coverage skills on tight ends and running backs.

Joining Fletcher on Wednesday is former Atlanta Falcon slot corner Robert McClain, who was also in for a workout earlier in the week - a 5' 9", 195 pound press corner that has been relegated to the nickle in Atlanta, which in terms of the Big Nickle defense that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan ran for the past two seasons, meant an increase in responsibility and playing time in a formation that calls for three safeties.

The nickle back in the Big Nickle that Atlanta ran has the role of playing in the box, handling the tight ends or flankers - and in almost every case the opponent had a distinct size advantage over the minuscule McClain, who was miscast as soon as Nolan set foot in the Falcons' facilities two years ago.

McClain is not big enough to handle the Big Nickle, but Fletcher is.  McClain is greased lightning, however, and an aggressive man corner whose only real drawback is his size - strong and relentless in sticking to his man, McClain could find himself a niche in the Patriots secondary and his experience as a starter in the league could win him a starting role on the outside.

Of course, this is pure speculation, but Belichick has a proven track record of bringing in other teams' scapegoats and turning them into scheme-specific professionals, and there's no reason to believe that he's going to abandon that winning formula now.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Patriots Would Be Wise To Consider Leverage Gain In Revis Option

The New England Patriots may have some leverage in the Darrelle Revis situation after all.

Unbeknown to most fans and even many experts, apparently Revis became unhappy with his Patriots' contract - in particular the "limiting" second year of the deal that, while paying him handsomely for being at the top of his craft, also prohibits the four-time All Pro from dictating terms on a long-term deal in the open market...

...which shouldn't come as any surprise to anyone, let alone the Patriots, who, if rumors are to be believed, are willing to let Revis enter free agency, then try to match any offer that comes down the pike - of which there should be many.
The Patriots would be wise to retain Revis, for more reasons than one.

But this is wrong, not just because it allows Revis to set the market price in free agency, probably driving up the asking price for many as a viable "alternative" to Revis, but also it takes what little leverage the Patriots have with the corner and throws it out the window, leaving them with just a $5 million dead-money vapor trail and no shutdown corner.

 Patriots' head ball coach and defacto General manager Bill Belichick is nothing if not a leverage junkie, so it is difficult to find the logic in them just allowing Revis to hit free agency and leave the Patriots' organization with a very expensive dead-money egg on their faces.

But what can they do?  If they pick up the 2015 option on Revis, his cap hit takes up close to 20% of the Patriots' total salary cap, and makes it so that if the Patriots want to be active at in either retaining their own free agents or pursuing one from another team, they would have to start slashing salaries or cutting players.

That is, unless they employ a more aggressive approach with Revis.

The team can end all speculation about their intent with the shutdown Corner by merely picking up his 2015 option that carries with it a cool $25 million cap figure, then using the leverage provided them in the contract to force Revis to either accept a long-term extension with New England or the Patriots could turn around and deal him for players, draft picks, or both from a team of their choice...

...and if they do so before June 2nd, the cap hit is reduced from $25 million to that dead-money figure of $5 million. The math is easy, and in following this path, the Patriots come out smelling like a rose regardless of what happens.

In the first scenario, Revis agrees to a long-term extension, say 4 years, $60 million where in his $12.5 roster bonus due him on April 1st is reverted to part of a larger signing bonus that is spread across the four years and becomes the only guaranteed money on the deal - let's say $20 million - which hold the team to a $5 million cap hit each season that they pick up his option for that year, and would reduce his cap hit for 2015 by $10 million.

The second scenario is even more compelling and could get the Patriots back on track with their business philosophy that they seemingly abandoned in order to sign Revis in the first place.

In this circumstance, The Patriots pick up the team's option on Revis, but he refuses to sign a long-term extension.  The team sends out word that they are willing to trade Revis on or before the first day of the draft in exchange for whatever the highest bidder comes up with as compensation, including, but not limited to a dynamic veteran player, first round draft capital, or both.

Imagine a circumstance where New England is armed with at least two first round draft picks - including the possibility of a Top 10.  The Patriots would essentially control the entire first round of the draft, as they could move up or down as they please, more or less targeting the players they want and pretty much able to land exactly where they need to in order to select the player.

An added bonus to this scenario is that while team owner Robert Kraft would still have to cut that $12.5 million roster bonus check to Revis for being on the roster at the start of the league year on Tuesday, it would satisfy the league's mandate that the Patriots come into compliance with the actual cash spending in accordance with the Collective Bargaining Agreement, of which the team is in arrears.

That has to happen anyway, but imagine the leverage pawn that Revis becomes in the second scenario, where the team sells him off to the highest bidder for much more than what his cap hit would have been, the repercussions potentially lasting for years if the team takes into consideration that any team willing to make a deal may do so for future considerations...

...and also limiting Revis suitors to those teams that likely won't have a direct impact on the Patriots' immediate fortunes, keeping teams like the Jets and Bills at bay by dealing him to a team outside of the division or- even better - outside of the conference.

The downside?  Even if New England decides to keep Revis with the $20 million salary, they have the best cornerback in the league as the cornerstone of a young defense on the rise, then gaining a compensatory draft pick in 2016 for losing him in free agency, if that indeed happens.

Regardless, it is likely Revis won't be happy about any of it, but he can't expect that the Patriots would just let him walk for nothing. The sky is literally the limit for New England should they choose to pick up Revis' 2015 option, and for a leverage junkie like Bill Belichick, that move should be a no-brainer.

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.