Wednesday, March 21, 2012 Updated: March 22, 9:07 AM ET
Bill Belichick knows when to fold 'em
By Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
After a week spent plucking players from across the NFL in a flurry of free-agent signings, the New England Patriots suffered their first two defections Wednesday.
Popular running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, aka "The Law Firm," is relocating his practice to the Cincinnati Bengals with a three-year deal. Also, defensive end Mark Anderson is off to Buffalo on a four-year pact -- his primary goal to sack quarterbacks like Tom Brady, his now former teammate, as a key cog in the Bills' new-look, Mario Williams-led defense.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis carried the bulk of the load in the Patriots' RB committee.
The instant analysis: Can't keep 'em all. If this is the worst thing that happens to the Patriots this offseason, the team is going to be just fine.
That's not to say the personnel losses won't have an impact; it's just the way the business works. Can't blame Green-Ellis and Anderson for looking to maximize their earnings given how short their playing careers are, and it's hard to fault the Patriots for adhering to a team-building, value-driven philosophy that has produced a lot of wins over the past 12 years.
In both cases, the Patriots set a value with which they were comfortable. In both cases, the player felt he might be worth more on the open market.
The market spoke and the players turned out to be right. So at that point, from the Patriots' perspective, there's nothing for Bill Belichick to do other than thank both players for their service, wish them luck, and activate contingency plans.
The Patriots didn't draft running backs Shane Vereen (second round) and Stevan Ridley (third round) with top selections last year for them to play limited roles. This is now their time to shine, Green-Ellis' departure opening up a team-leading 34 percent chunk of playing time for running backs that needs to be filled. Time will tell if the Patriots' drafting was sound.
Meanwhile, let us not forget that Anderson was basically signed off the scrap heap in August. Few other teams, if any, had interest in him at the time. Look back at some of the blogs and analysis from training camp and some didn't even think Anderson would make the club, so it's no stretch to say his career was revived in New England -- a credit to him and a reflection that the organization is doing something right.
"It was confidence," Anderson said Wednesday of why it worked for him in New England. "Bill and that whole organization had confidence in me to come in and do what I do, which is to rush the passer and be a playmaker for the team. Everything just jelled at the right time."
Still, the Patriots obviously felt Anderson was a part-time player (47 percent of the snaps). The Bills, who rewarded him with a generous four-year, $27.5 million contract with $8 million fully guaranteed, view him as closer to a full-time option. If the Patriots signed Anderson to that contract, it would have been their only pact longer than three years this offseason while also making him the third-highest paid player on defense behind Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. It would be hard to justify that much for a player who didn't project to play every down in their scheme.
Mark Anderson signed with the Bills, and he'll still see Tim Tebow, whom the Jets acquired via trade.
So now the Patriots hope that free-agent signing Trevor Scott (one year, $1.15 million) can do what Anderson did in 2011, and recapture some of the pass-rush burst from earlier in his career. Maybe 2011 sixth-round draft choice Markell Carter makes an impression, or perhaps veteran Andre Carter re-signs when healthy and continues to turn back the clock with a strong performance. Then there is always the draft, where the Patriots have multiple picks in the first and second round and could target a pass-rusher at one of those spots.
Sure, it hurts to lose two solid contributors, but with respect to both, this isn't in the same category as cornerback Asante Samuel's departure to Philadelphia in 2008 or defensive lineman Richard Seymour's trade to the Raiders in 2009.
Green-Ellis and Anderson played their roles well, but they're not irreplaceable on the field. The toughest blow might come in the locker room. The popular Green-Ellis embodied pretty much everything Bill Belichick asks of those who wear the Patriots jersey: He's humble, hard-working and a team-first guy.
Like Anderson's career revival, Green-Ellis' rise reflects well on the team's program. He came here as a rookie free agent, started his career on the practice squad, earned a promotion to the roster, then was a special-teams contributor, and ultimately became the team's lead back (while still playing on special teams).
In other words, he has earned everything he has coming to him.
He'll get it in Cincinnati, not New England, and sometimes that's just the way the business goes.