Commentary

Bill Belichick's master plan unfolds

He's been busy making Patriots roster deeper, more competitive with free agents

Updated: March 20, 2012, 1:40 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

The winning culture that Bill Belichick has created with the New England Patriots includes many layers, and two of the most notable have been on display through the first six days of free agency.

Belichick loves depth. He also wants a competitive environment in which no one is comfortable.

Those two thoughts best sum up the free-agent binge that Belichick has been on since the 2012 league year officially began Tuesday, March 13 at 4 p.m. ET. For those who have lost track, we're now up to nine signings/agreements with players from other teams. There have been five re-signings.

No team in the NFL has been busier and if Belichick's plans work out on the field, no team will be deeper or as competitive.

Remember some of the big chatter when free agency began? Some wondered whether the Patriots might make a run at free-agent prize Mario Williams, or perhaps give up a first-round draft choice and big contract for restricted free agent receiver Mike Wallace.

Instead Belichick used the money required to sign those players and devoted it to 14 … and he still has some leftover change and salary cap space to make more moves. This reflects his belief that a strong roster across the board is better than a top-heavy club more reliant on stars.

Now that the plan has unfolded, it's easier to see why he made this his strategy.

The Patriots had 51 players under contract for 2012 at the start of free agency. Since teams can have up to 80 players on their rosters in the offseason, Belichick has 29 spots to fill. That's a lot of roster real estate, holes created in part because of the team's spotty work in the draft from 2006-2008 (Stephen Gostkowski, Jerod Mayo and Matthew Slater are the lone picks remaining with the club from those drafts).

Belichick knew that some of those 2012 roster slots would eventually be filled by draft picks, hopefully a few who can produce big while falling into the "cheap labor" category. The Patriots currently own two first-rounders, two second-rounders, and single selections in the third and fourth rounds. There also will be some rookie free agents signed, but that still would leave 15-18 roster spots to fill.

Hence the aggressive free-agent approach, with Belichick pinpointing needs and mid-level players who could contribute without taxing the salary cap (which has actually been reduced since 2009). While other teams focused on the big stars, Belichick was thinking of the middle class, similar to how he did it back in 2001 with his best free-agent haul ever (Bryan Cox, Larry Izzo, David Patten, Anthony Pleasant, Antowain Smith, Mike Vrabel).

A few things that stand out from the moves:

Nine for nine. The nine unrestricted free agents come from nine different teams -- six in the AFC, three in the NFC. One could say that reflects the detail of the pro scouting staff.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Lloyd
Scott Rovak/US PresswireWhile most of the Patriots' free-agent signings have been "middle class" types, Brandon Lloyd is the exception.

Special teams. The Patriots value special teams as much as anyone. Defensive back Marquice Cole (Jets) is known for his work in that area, while linebacker Tracy White (second in special teams tackles in 2011) was guaranteed $235,000 of his base salary, a sign of his value to the Patriots. Also, special teams captain Matthew Slater was an important re-signing at between $1.5 million and $2 million per season. Special teams coach Scott O'Brien seemed to have a significant voice in the process.

Lloyd the signature move. While this was a free-agent class focused on the middle class, receiver Brandon Lloyd shouldn't be put into that category. That's the biggest move of all.

Light's future and its trickle-down effect. The one-year agreement in principle with veteran offensive lineman Robert Gallery could be tied to starting left tackle Matt Light strongly considering retirement. Gallery has experience at tackle and guard, and if Light isn't part of the mix in 2012, Gallery could turn out to be an important cog however the Patriots align up front, especially when considering the addition of Mario Williams to the AFC East.

Looking ahead, there figure to be more moves. The Patriots hosted free-agent defensive lineman Luis Castillo and are still in the mix to retain running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and defensive end Mark Anderson, both of whom have drawn interest from other clubs. Safety James Ihedigbo, receiver Deion Branch and center Dan Koppen also could be part of the plans to return.

So we're currently looking at an incomplete picture -- which is important to note when considering there haven't been as many resources devoted to the inconsistent defense -- but what has come sharply into focus is that building better depth and more quality competition across the roster has been a top priority.

With a slew of moves that have touched all corners of the league, Belichick seems to have accomplished that goal rather decisively.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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