Earlier this week, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady returned to the practice field with one of his go-to targets, Julian Edelman, on the campus of Southern California. It marked the first time since the AFC Championship Game in mid-January that Brady got back to throwing.
In a sense, it was like firing up the convertible that had been stored in the garage all winter, and hitting the road for the first time.
No worries, Patriots fans, it was a smooth ride as always. Everything under the hood remains in good working condition.
How long that will be the case is a question that has percolated a bit more here in New England of late, which in turn, has led some to ask if the Patriots are doing enough to maximize the opportunity they have with such a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback.
Brady turns 37 in August. His career clock is ticking.
This is what some refer to as “The Window” and it often sparks one of this region's more passionate sports debates.
At one extreme, you have those who want all the poker chips pushed to the middle of the table and it's “go for it at all costs!” This could also be called the John Elway Approach.
Closer to the other extreme is the line of thinking, “Hey, we've been to the last three AFC Championship games, and if a few things break differently, maybe we're not even having this discussion. Have we lost perspective?” Signed, Bill Belichick.
This contrast has been one of the more intriguing subplots of the first three days of NFL free agency, watching how the Denver Broncos (led by the soon-to-be-38-year-old Peyton Manning) and New England Patriots are taking significantly different approaches to their respective windows.
Consider that while Elway has been ultra-aggressive in hanging out big-money contracts to safety T.J. Ward, cornerback Aqib Talib and defensive end DeMarcus Ware, the Patriots' leading receiver in 2013 is left hanging in the free-agent balance as Julian Edelman is scheduled to visit with the San Francisco 49ers on Friday. Would the Patriots really let him get away?
That would be a big hit to the team, and represent a U-turn to those making the case that Bill Belichick finally decided to take the all-in plunge by landing cornerback Darrelle Revis. The all-in approach sounded good for a few hours ... until reports surfaced that defensive captain Vince Wilfork had requested his release as part of an issue related to his contract. If that ultimately happens, isn't it weakening the team as “The Window” closes a bit more?
Dallas Cowboys in 2000.
With quarterback Troy Aikman ailing health-wise, the Cowboys attempted to surround him with as many weapons as possible in hopes of giving him the best chance to win one more Super Bowl. Speedy receiver Joey Galloway, for example, was acquired for the hefty price of two first-round draft choices. The Cowboys were all-in.
“I remember [head coach] Dave Campo saying that Galloway was a guy who was going to get us over the hump, and we'd be a more explosive team, helping Troy get the ball down the field,” Woodson recalled. "I specifically remember the words ‘over the hump.'"
But what unfolded was an unforgettable reminder of the physical toll of football, as Galloway tore his ACL after playing in just one game and missed the season. The Cowboys, with Woodson at safety until he also landed on injured reserve, finished 5-11.
This isn't to say Woodson is now advocating a more conservative approach. To the contrary.
“No doubt about it, you want to maximize the quarterback's greatness,” he said. “You see what Denver is doing now, there is a 2-3 year window with both of these teams to do that. Those windows can close in a hurry. When Brady's gone, they're going to join the ranks of the average teams as well.”
While Belichick might contest that line of thinking, and Brady would likely scoff at the idea he wouldn't be effective when he hits 40, this remains the great debate.
All-in? Or just-enough?
The correct answer, as is often the case with “The Window," probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Edelman and possible fit in San Francisco. With Julian Edelman scheduled to visit the 49ers Friday, there was curiosity from this perspective on how they view him as a fit. ESPN.com 49ers reporter Bill Williamson lays it out nicely in noting that San Francisco has Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin at receiver, and Edelman would be viewed as a complement. The 49ers don’t have a lot of salary-cap space, as pointed out by Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, but they do have one thing going in their favor -- they are Edelman’s hometown team.
Interior offensive line yet to be addressed. The Patriots visited with free agent Rams guard Shelley Smith on Thursday, but no deal was struck and Smith continued on to Miami. The Patriots have been exploring the interior offensive line market, and we wonder if this might lead them back to Ryan Wendell.
Revis deal doesn’t affect Browner pursuit. When the Patriots visited with free-agent cornerback Brandon Browner on Thursday, one line of thinking was that the team might be less inclined to strike a deal because it had finalized its pact with Darrelle Revis. But the Patriots are indeed still interested in bringing Browner aboard, and the interest is mutual. But Browner is reportedly planning to take other free-agent visits, including one to Washington.
A well-placed Patriots source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter that "Browner wants to be in New England. I think we are close, but it's a tough deal to do because of suspension, etc."
Browner will be suspended for the first four games of the 2014 regular season for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. If Browner complies with the league's policy, he'll be reinstated after the four-game suspension.
Under the terms of his suspension, Browner can sign with a team, show up for the offseason program, attend training camp, and play in the preseason.
Browner will visit with the Washington Redskins on Friday, a league source told Schefter, and will then visit New Orleans while his agent Peter Schaffer talks with New England and Oakland.
After a report surfaced Thursday night that Browner already had agreed to a two-year deal with the Patriots, Schaffer told Schefter that Browner is in negotiations with "four teams and we do not have a deal. We aren't even close."
The Patriots have already bolstered their defensive backfield this offseason by adding Darrelle Revis.
Edelman, who enters his sixth NFL season in 2014, is from Redwood City, Calif. This is the first reported visit this offseason for Edelman, whose representatives have been keeping lines of communication open with the Patriots.
New England has visited with free-agent receivers Brandon LaFell (Panthers) and Jason Avant (Eagles), but Edelman is still on the radar as well.
Perhaps the visit with the 49ers sparks some movement with Edelman's situation. It wasn't until Edelman visited the New York Giants last offseason as a free agent that it sparked his return to the Patriots on a one-year deal.
Signing bonus: $360,000
Base salary: $740,000 ($140,000 guaranteed)
Roster bonus: $100,000 ($6,250 per game that he is on 46-man game-day roster)
Base salary: $800,000
Roster bonus-1: $300,000 (paid on 5th day of league year)
Roster bonus-2: $100,000 ($6,250 per game that he is on 46-man game-day roster)
Hoomanawanui can earn up to $400,000 in incentives in each season.
QUICK-HIT THOUGHTS: This deal reflects how Hoomanawanui has carved out a nice niche with the Patriots as a reliable option at the position, and his presence takes on added importance when considering Rob Gronkowski's health considerations. With $500,000 in first-year guarantees and a maximum payout of $1.6 million in 2014, it is a well-deserved bump compared to last year when he had an injury split in his deal.
Kelly was set to earn $2.5 million in his contract -- $1.95 million in base salary, a $50,000 workout bonus and $500,000 in per-game roster bonuses.
As part of the restructured pact, it now breaks down this way:
Signing bonus: $100,000
Base salary: $955,000
Roster bonuses: $800,000 ($50K per game he's on the 46-man active list)
Total value: $1.85 million
The deal also includes the following playing-time incentives:
20 percent -- $95,000
30 percent -- $195,000
40 percent -- $345,000
50 percent -- $495,000
60 percent -- $645,000
(The maximum Kelly can earn in playing-time incentives is $645,000. Thus, the maximum value of the new contract is still $2.5 million.)
The Patriots recently approached Wilfork about altering the final year of his contract, in which he's scheduled to earn $7.5 million and count $11.6 million against the salary cap. When a team usually approaches a player about his contract, it often means the team is looking for some type of concession.
Today's news, which comes on the heels of the Patriots signing cornerback Darrelle Revis to what is essentially a one-year, $12 million contract, seems to reflect how Wilfork feels about that.
Let's put ourselves in the shoes of each side and dissect things:
1. Accountability in focus as it relates to past projections with Darrelle Revis.
2. Revis ... Revis ... and more Revis.
3. Thoughts on some of the free agents the Patriots had in for visits -- linebacker Wesley Woodyard and receivers Brandon LaFell and Jason Avant.
4. Julian Edelman and his free-agent status.
5. Looking ahead to where the Patriots might focus on improvements on the roster.
NFL Network, citing sources, first reported Wilfork was seeking his release.
Wilfork is in the final year of his contract and was scheduled to earn a base salary of $7.5 million and count $11.6 million against the salary cap. Sources previously told ESPNBoston.com that the Patriots recently approached Wilfork about altering his contract.
Wilfork, a team captain who joined the Patriots as a first-round draft choice in 2004, was limited to four games last season because of a torn Achilles.
The 32-year-old is a five-time Pro Bowler and has been one of the NFL's premier run-stuffers, displaying uncommon athleticism for a player his size (6-foot-2, 325 pounds).
He's also been a fixture in the area, earning the team's community service award in 2010.
1. After going with Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro at No. 29 in each of his first two mocks, Kiper now has Amaro out of the first round.
2. Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III, who was viewed as a mid-round possibility in earlier mocks, also has slipped out of the top 32.
This time around, Kiper slots Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman to the Patriots at No. 29, and it has been a popular pick in various mock drafts. Hageman could give the Patriots a high-upside prospect with an ideal physical makeup at the position. Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Armond Armstead and Chris Jones top the current depth chart, so Hageman would likely have the luxury of time to develop.
While Hageman could be a solid pick, I'm also curious about the fall of Nix and if he might represent the better pick in that scenario. He's a big run-stuffer who is a good athlete for his size. In a league that trends toward the pass, might Nix be a potentially undervalued asset who could be a solid selection at No. 29?
It has widely been reported as a one-year, $12 million deal, which is accurate. Revis will earn $12 million this season.
But for salary-cap accounting purposes, and to protect Revis from being assigned the franchise tag in 2015, the sides have added a second year to the pact in 2015 that would pay Revis $20 million and count $25 million against the salary cap.
The $20 million is an astronomical figure, as is the $25 million cap charge. That makes it unlikely the Patriots would pay it, thus making Revis an unrestricted free agent in 2015 or one of the highest-paid players in football.
The second year helps the Patriots spread out the salary-cap charges for Revis over two seasons instead of taking one $12 million salary-cap hit in 2014. Revis' cap charge for 2014 is now $7 million.
Here is a breakdown of the deal for those into specifics:
Cap value: $7M
Cash value: $12M
Signing bonus: $10M
Roster bonus: $500K ($33.33K per game if on 46-man roster up to 15 games)
Base salary: $1.5M
Cap value: $25M
Cash value: $20M
Roster bonus-1: $12M (earned on April 1, 2015, if club exercises option prior to end of 2014 league year)
Roster bonus-2: $500,000 ($33.33K per game if on 46-man roster up to 15 games)
Base salary: $7.5M
With Kiper's third mock draft set to be released Thursday, it's a good time to revisit team needs, and tight end remains on the radar.
Veteran Michael Hoomanawanui is returning to the Patriots on a two-year deal, giving the Patriots three layers on the depth chart -- Rob Gronkowski, Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams. Another "move" tight end would be ideal, and that is the category in which Amaro would fall.
The only position I think we could decisively rule out in the first round at this point is quarterback.
Everything else is in play, with both 2014 and future years in mind, and that's generally the way the Patriots like it. They prefer not to have their hand forced as it was, to some degree, at receiver last year.
From a general sense, one reminder that we've seen this year in free agency is that some of the biggest-money deals are along the defensive line. So if the right defensive lineman falls to the Patriots at No. 29, it wouldn't be surprising if the Patriots target that spot as well -- drafting and developing at the position is generally good business.
At this point, though, it's a blank canvas, with the Patriots owning one pick in each of the first four rounds, two in Round 6 and one in Round 7.
The fifth-rounder was shipped to the Eagles in the Isaac Sopoaga trade.