Commentary

Patriots prefer contrarian approach

When it comes to free agency, New England not afraid to break the mold

Originally Published: March 20, 2012
By Ross Tucker | ESPN.com

Although most of the focus during the initial free-agent frenzy is on the big names and the gigantic contracts that they sign, the New England Patriots managed to stay way under the radar. They made a number of value signings that they believe will upgrade their roster for 2012.

Most teams make a run at some of the elite players available, such as Mario Williams, Peyton Manning or Vincent Jackson, or sit out the first week entirely until the prices supposedly come down and they can value shop later on in free agency.

Not the Pats. They went after some of those so-called second-tier and second-week players right from the start, a strategy that I think is brilliant. Who says just because a player isn't a marquee name or won't command more than $10 million in guarantees that you have to wait until the second week of free agency to pursue him? Nobody.

Almost immediately, New England went after and signed free agents it had targeted, such as defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene, safety Steve Gregory, pass-rusher Trevor Scott, wide receivers Anthony Gonzalez and Brandon Lloyd, and offensive lineman Robert Gallery. The Pats went immediately to the bargain aisle while most of the other teams were fighting over the fancy new releases for the upcoming fall season.

[+] EnlargeLloyd
AP Photo/Tom GannamThe Patriots didn't spend wildly, but they got a quality receiver in Brandon Lloyd.

Why is it such a smart move? Because the Patriots understand the inherent insecurity of NFL players who are not among the elite. They know that players like Fanene, Gregory and Scott are nervous about the amount of interest they will generate on the open market and are keenly aware of their mortality as football players.

Fact is, there is another side of free agency that many people never even think about. The 200 or so players who simply never get signed by a team again. Their contracts for last season expired, and they will never even get another opportunity because there aren't any teams with a desire to sign them. Happens all the time. They don't retire. They are retired. Their roster spots are filled by some of the close to 300 players who will be selected in April's draft and thus their careers end without being released or suffering an injury.

That's not to say Gregory and the rest of the Patriots' signings were in that category. Clearly, they were not. But they are the type of players who were probably a little worried about what the level of interest would be in them. The unknown is a very scary thing for NFL players who aren't under contract, and the thought had to cross their minds at some point that they might be staring a minimum contract offer in the face at some point in March.

Fortunately for them, the Patriots came calling early. My guess is the players were flattered by that, and when the Patriots made an offer, they jumped at it rather than waiting to see whether a better one might come along.

Now, is it a fair critique that the Patriots didn't sign many (any?) difference-makers who could put them over the top and that they would be better served by going after a more high-profile free agent? Perhaps, and I can certainly understand fans who would feel that way. But if you have already made the decision that you aren't going to go that route, why wait until the second week of free agency to get the players you are interested in under contract?

You shouldn't, the Pats didn't, and as a result, they got their targeted guys. Now only time will tell the impact those signings will have on the 2012 season.

From the inbox

Q: Obviously, leadership is important in any workplace, not just in the NFL. With that said is it overvalued by the media and fans? Leadership doesn't block or read defenses. Leadership doesn't throw or catch passes. People are saying Mark Sanchez needs to work on his leadership this offseason. Doesn't he need to work more on cutting back on the turnovers? Is leadership in the locker room mostly a media perception? I can't help thinking that until this year Eli Manning was ripped on for his lack of leadership. Now because they won he is put on a pedestal for his leadership.

Jay in New York

A: Although I would never say leadership is overrated, I think you make some good points. The most salient point is that media and fans have no clue who is or isn't a leader. Most of the assumptions they make in this regard are based upon what the television producers decide to show the viewer of sideline reactions and discussions. Think about how ludicrous that is. The players and coaches are the only ones who truly know who is or isn't a good leader. The same people who used to say Eli Manning wasn't a leader when he would make certain facial expressions as the Giants were struggling are the ones who talk about how poised and stoic he is in the face of pressure when he makes the exact same expressions now that he has had success.

Q: Ross, we are just about a week into the free-agent signing period. Share with us what it feels like when you get a deal. What is it like when you get a check? You do get a check don't you?

Craig in Tacoma, Wash.

A: Yes, if part of a player's contract calls for a signing bonus, then he does get a check shortly after signing the deal. Although I never got the type of exorbitant signing bonus that we read and hear about this time of year, I did get two signing-bonus checks at various points in my career, and it is a really good feeling. It almost felt like it was free money because NFL players only get paid weekly during the season per game, after they have made the team by going through an arduous training camp. The two times I got money just for signing my name felt like I didn't have to earn it, although obviously I already had in the mind of the team.

Q: Ross, when a player and a team can't agree on a long-term contract and the team intends to franchise the player, why don't they just agree on a franchise-like contract without the tag? I'm thinking in particular of the Drew Brees situation and how avoiding the franchise tag would have assisted both sides. Instead of going through the franchise process, Brees could have just signed a one-year deal that follows the franchise formula. That would have let the Saints free to use the tag on someone like Carl Nicks, which would help Brees.

Mike in Baltimore

A: Although I understand your premise, the fact is the player doesn't want to play under a one-year contract. That's the whole point. The team has to retain his rights by placing the tag on him, and the player isn't going to voluntarily help the team place that restriction on somebody else, just like he isn't going to voluntarily sign a one-year deal. By your logic, a team could tell multiple players they are going to be franchised, compelling all of them to agree to one-year deals instead of actually being tagged all under the pretense of allowing the organization to tag somebody else for the "good of the team." Nobody is going to voluntarily do that because everyone wants the security and large guarantee that comes along with a long-term contract.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams during his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com. Tucker, who also hosts ESPN.com's Football Today podcast, graduated from Princeton.