Commentary

Patriots aren't getting bang for bucks

Updated: March 11, 2014, 7:31 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

When it comes to the New England Patriots and spending money to build a championship team, there seems to be a growing misperception in some circles that misses the greater point.

Somewhere along the line, the theory that the Patriots aren't going for it, and are content to do just enough to be a playoff contender, has picked up momentum. The chatter particularly seems to intensify at this time of year when NFL teams are handing out big-money contracts with free agency set to begin.

There are two main issues with this line of thinking -- the independent financial data doesn't support it, and it overlooks the more pressing issue: It's not that the Patriots aren't spending money, it's how they're spending it.

[+] EnlargeDanny Amendola
AP Photo/Steven SenneThat the Patriots are shopping Danny Amendola a year after signing him to a big-money contract illustrates their issues in free agency.

To prove that point, let's get right to the bottom-line financial numbers.

In 2013, the NFL salary cap was set at $123 million. The Patriots' cash spending, according to sources not affiliated with the Patriots who track figures for all NFL clubs, was $129,656,000.

In 2012, when the NFL salary cap was set at $120.6 million, the Patriots' cash spending was about $168 million.

In 2011, with a salary cap of $120 million, the team's cash spending was around $130 million.

And in the 2010 uncapped year, the Patriots' cash spending was $151 million.

For the '10 and '12 seasons, the Patriots ranked second among all NFL teams in terms of spending cash, according to the independent data.

So the Patriots are spending. In recent years, they just aren't getting as much bang for the free-agent buck, and that is where the root of any criticism is more fairly placed.

One of the most recent examples is that one year after handing out a five-year, $28.5 million deal to receiver Danny Amendola that included $10 million in bonuses and guarantees, the Patriots have reportedly floated his name in trade talks.

After Julian Edelman proved to be everything the Patriots thought Amendola would be, and perhaps more, the club now faces a situation in which Edelman, who played on close to a minimum-level, one-year deal in 2013, probably expects to receive at least the type of financial commitment Amendola got.

When considering Amendola and the core of the Patriots' 2013 free-agent class -- a group headlined by defensive lineman Tommy Kelly, safety Adrian Wilson and running back Leon Washington -- the financial payout ($8.35 million in signing bonuses plus about another $5 million in base salary) didn't align with what we saw on the field (in part due to injury).

This isn't to say it's all bad, and re-signings of key players such as Edelman, cornerback Aqib Talib, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui count, too. So does landing running back LeGarrette Blount in a trade, which serves as a reminder that free agency is only one part of the team-building process (drafting and trade acquisitions are the others).

But specific to signing players from other teams, the Patriots' shaky results early in free agency extend past 2013 and represent, from this view, a bit of a slump.

The Patriots' signature signing of 2012, defensive tackle Jonathan Fanene, never played a regular-season down for them and the sides ended up in a grievance over Fanene's failure to disclose medical information at his physical. Safety Steve Gregory was the most productive early signing that year, and he was just jettisoned. Receiver Brandon Lloyd was a productive one-year rental who warrants mention as well.

The 2011 lockout season created a different dynamic with free-agent signings, and defensive end Andre Carter was probably the Patriots' best for that one year. That was overshadowed, in part, by two failed trades for receiver Chad Johnson and defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth.

In 2010, the Patriots worked the moderate to low levels at the outset of free agency, with the only move to really pan out coming in the form of veteran tight end Alge Crumpler. The best signing that year turned out to be one they were forced into because of injury, nabbing running back Danny Woodhead after the first week of the season.

The 2009 free-agent crop was forgettable with tight end Chris Baker, cornerback Shawn Springs and receiver Joey Galloway among the early headliners. Cornerback Leigh Bodden was the best signing that year, but when he was re-upped after a solid '09 campaign, he was never the same again (injury a factor). Similar to the year before, the Patriots' best move came after training camp started when they signed Rob Ninkovich after he was released by the New Orleans Saints.

So what does it all mean?

It has long been said that the most successful formula for teams is to draft and develop, and then re-sign as many of those core players as possible. The concept is that a young player gets brought up in the system, a team learns the ins and outs of the player, and then there is more comfort in making a big financial commitment by the time that player reaches free agency. Veteran free agency and trades should be used to complement that process, and we've seen others, such as the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, hit it bigger in that area than the Patriots in recent years.

As for the Patriots, one thing is clear: They haven't been shy about spending money, specifically when it comes to lucrative contract extensions for their own players. The struggles have been inconsistency in complementing that core, particularly when signing players from other teams early in free agency.

There aren't as many compliments to offer up in that area, which is a sobering reminder as free agency gets set to begin on Tuesday.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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