3/13/17 4:00 PM
There are no trophies handed out in March. Too many teams have “won the offseason” in March only to end a season without touching a trophy. So while what teams do in March can certainly impact their seasons, there are countless examples of teams doling out bags of cash only to learn the hard way that such investments often disappoint.
Roster-building is a process that Bill Belichick takes through the trade deadline and late into the season. March is merely the starting line for the new league year, but we have witnessed Belichick add key contributors well beyond free agency’s beginning. And he uses the trade market perhaps better than anyone.
Just look back to 2016 as an example. Free agency saw the additions of Chris Hogan, Chris Long and Shea McClellin. Offseason trades saw Chandler Jones depart and Martellus Bennett join the club. In-season trades included moves to acquire cornerback Eric Rowe and linebackers Barkevious Mingo and Kyle Van Noy while Jamie Collins was shipped out. Wide receiver Michael Floyd was added as a free agent in December. Despite an ever-changing roster, the Patriots went on to win Super Bowl LI.
So while the so-called offseason “splash” draws attention, it doesn’t always result in wins. However, when the Patriots are making those splashes, the results have been stellar.
We won’t delve deep into 2001 when the Patriots added a slew of free agents in a much-needed roster overhaul. Few were excited when Mike Vrabel, Larry Izzo, David Patten, Jermain Wiggins, Otis Smith, Antowain Smith, Roman Phifer, Bryan Cox, Mike Compton, Matt Stevens, Anthony Pleasant, Marc Edwards, Terrance Shaw, Grey Ruegamer and Terrell Buckley joined the club. That shopping spree was labled “Walmart-esque,” meaning it was inexpensive quantity at the expense of top quality. Almost all of those players made significant contributions for an unexpected Super Bowl Championship team.
A look back at recent history, though, indicates that when the Patriots have aggressively added proven talent in the offseason, the results have typically been favorable.
After winning a championship in 2001, the Patriots went 9-7 and missed the playoffs in 2002. The defense struggled, allowing 336 yards per game, including 137 rushing yards.
So Belichick and owner Robert Kraft opened the checkbook to sign veteran safety Rodney Harrison, pass-rushing linebacker Rosevelt Colvin and cornerback Tyrone Poole early in free agency before trading for big nose tackle Ted Washington during training camp. Those moves proved critical. Despite an early season-ending injury to Colvin, the Patriots returned to Super Bowl glory. Drafting defensive end Ty Warren and defensive backs Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel also helped as those rookies contributed to the unit’s improvement.
One season later after averaging just 3.4 yards per carry in Antowain Smith’s last season with the club, Belichick traded for disgruntled running back Corey Dillon and signed Keith Traylor to replace Washington on the nose (while also drafting Vince Wilfork). The Patriots, with a core from 2001-2003 intact, repeated as Super Bowl champions.
The Patriots were relatively quiet through 2005 and 2006, but after losing the 2006 AFC Championship Game with a team that lacked quality receiving options, Belichick went for gold in the 2007 offseason by consummating trades for wide receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker while signing free agent wideout Donte Stallworth. They also signed linebacker Adalius Thomas to a big-money contract and acquired savvy veteran linebacker Junior Seau. Those moves helped the Patriots to a 16-0 regular season while the offense scored an NFL-record 589 points. Unfortunately, New England was upset in Super Bowl XLII.
In 2014, the Patriots secondary was in dire need of reinforcements. Aqib Talib had finished a season-plus in New England while battling injuries and walked in free agency. So Belichick signed the league’s best corner, Darrelle Revis, and a big, physical corner in Brandon Browner. With those two anchoring the secondary beside dependable veteran Devon McCourty, the team won Super Bowl XLIX.
Last season’s additions of Bennett, Hogan, Long and McClellin proved worthwhile as all contributed to another Super Bowl title.
So that brings us to 2017. Belichick has been aggressive in trading for speedy wide receiver Brandin Cooks to add a deep threat to an offensive unit badly in need of one. He replaced tight end Bennett with the younger Dwayne Allen in a trade with Indy. He replaced Long via trade with Carolina for defensive end Kony Ealy. Cornerback Logan Ryan left via free agency, and Belichick signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a big-money deal while also landing defensive lineman Lawrence Guy in free agency.
The team’s offseason moves, coming off a Super Bowl title, have been lauded. Belichick knew his team’s flaws and has set out to address them. But unlike the 2015 team, the 2016 Patriots remained relatively healthy with Rob Gronkowski the only major injury casualty. So while an aggressive approach to roster-building early in the league year generates excitement, it will only matter if it translates to success on the field in 2017.