All Roads Lead to Foxborough

Or so it seems this off-season, as the Patriots have been aggressively stockpiling impact players. Have they regained the edge over AFC rivals Indianapolis and San Diego?
March 25, 2007

The text messagesfrom free-agent wide receiver Donte' Stallworth to his agent, Drew Rosenhaus,began enthusiastically on the first night of his visit to New England, afterPatriots quarterback Tom Brady happened by Stallworth's table at a Bostonrestaurant on March 5 to preach the team's gospel. By the next day, asStallworth was meeting in Foxborough with Pats officials, the texts toRosenhaus revealed a man whose mind was made up. I want to be here. Let's getit done. I don't want to leave here without a contract. ¶ It should surprise noone that prime free agents would want to join a franchise that has won three ofthe past six Super Bowls. What is unusual is that they'd take less money toplay for one with so much salary-cap room. And it's stranger still to see thePatriots playing the free-agency game as aggressively as coach Bill Belichickplays defense. In their eight years of team-building, Belichick and vicepresident of player personnel Scott Pioli have mostly been bargain-basementshoppers: The 20 free agents who formed the bedrock of the first championshipteam (such as linebacker Mike Vrabel) came from the lower and middleechelons.

But in the first11 days of free agency this year the Pats signed five players off otherrosters, including Stallworth, the Philadelphia Eagles long-ball threat, andlinebacker Adalius Thomas of the Baltimore Ravens, the best linebacker on themarket; traded for the Miami Dolphins' productive receiver--return man WesWelker; re-signed three of their own free agents; and placed the franchise tagon cornerback Asante Samuel, all but assuring that the 2006 NFL coleader ininterceptions (10) will be in New England for at least one more season."I'm stunned," says a rival scout. "But it just goes to showyou--anytime you think you've got the Patriots figured out, they go and dosomething no one expects."

New England'sflurry of activity doesn't signify a shift in philosophy. Rather it was theresult of a perfect storm of team needs, available players, available cash ($23million under a salary cap of $109 million) and a more conservative approach byteams such as the New York Giants and Jets, the Green Bay Packers and theCarolina Panthers that are usually aggressive bidders. "Believe me, we'vemade a lot of calls the first day of free agency every year," Belichicksaid last Friday. "This year was just different. We pursued guys we needed,and they wanted to come."

Belichick'slinebacking corps looked old and slow when the Indianapolis Colts racked up 32points and 311 yards in the second half of the Pats' AFC title-game loss. Sothey signed Thomas to a five-year deal at an average of $7 million a year, thesame salary that three guards received in this off-season of NFL largesse. The6'2", 270-pound Thomas is so versatile--with Baltimore he could line up onthe D-line and even in the secondary--that some teams feared he might be lessproductive strictly as a linebacker. "We change what we do lots ofweeks," Belichick says. "We're a game-plan team. For us, a player can'thave too much versatility. We'll find a way to use him."

The San Francisco49ers would have paid Thomas at least $1 million more per season, but hisfamily didn't want to move to California--and the seven-year vet had his ownpriorities. "The money wasn't going to make my decision," says Thomas,who had a career-high 11 sacks in '06. "Having a chance to win every yearin a good place, with a coach and organization I can trust, those were theimportant things."

The Patriots endedlast season with Jabar Gaffney, Reche Caldwell and Troy Brown as their topthree wideouts; they'll most likely start Stallworth and Welker in '07 andbring another free-agent signee, Kelley Washington of the Cincinnati Bengals,off the bench. New England traded a second- and seventh-round pick for Welker,who last year accomplished the exceedingly rare trifecta of leading his team inreceptions (67, for 687 yards), punt returns (9.2 yards per attempt) andkickoff returns (22.2). "We've played against him twice a year, and he'skilled us every game," Belichick says. "We couldn't cover him."

Stallworth, whoaveraged 19.1 yards per catch in '06, gives Brady his best deep threat ever.Pioli also built some insurance into the contract in case Stallworth issidelined by off-field problems. (The Philadelphia Inquirer reported earlierthis month that he was in the league's substance-abuse program and could besubject to a suspension for a subsequent violation.) Stallworth is slated toreceive $3.6 million this year, but $1.6 million of that will come in rosterbonuses of $100,000 per game; if the Patriots retain him for 2008, it triggersa longer-term deal with an $8 million bonus. The Dolphins and the Titans wereboth pursuing Stallworth, "but he wanted to play with Tom Brady," saysTitans coach Jeff Fisher. "Who can blame him?"

With 2006first-round pick Laurence Maroney ready to become a 300-carry-a-season runningback, New England waived Corey Dillon and signed a better blocker and specialteams player, Sammy Morris, from the Dolphins. And while their good, youngblocking tight end Daniel Graham got $6 million a year from the Denver Broncosin free agency, the Pats signed a good, old blocking tight end, Kyle Brady ofthe Jacksonville Jaguars, for less than half that, $2.8 million a year.

Of course,projecting whether big-name free agents will improve a team is risky business.The Washington Redskins, Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings were thebiggest movers in the market last year, signing presumed impact players such asreceiver Antwaan Randle El (Washington), center LeCharles Bentley (Cleveland)and guard Steve Hutchinson (Minnesota). But all three teams went backward--froma combined 25--23 in 2005 to 15--33 in '06. "I hope what we've donetranslates to the field," says Patriots owner Robert Kraft. "But younever know. Four years ago we had a major signing in [linebacker] RoseveltColvin, and he hurt his hip in the second game of the season and missed most ofthe year."

If New England hasspent wisely, the AFC's balance of power could shift. At the end of last seasonthe Colts, Patriots and Chargers were 1A, 1B and 1C in the conference--the Patsjust as easily could have lost the divisional playoff game in San Diego or wonthe conference title showdown at Indy. The Chargers, aside from re-signing topguard Kris Dielman, have been all but inactive during free agency. The SuperBowl champion Colts lost two of their best defenders, cornerback Nick Harper(to Tennessee) and linebacker Cato June (to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), plusrunning back Dominic Rhodes (to the Oakland Raiders), and have added no one.True, Chargers stars LaDainian Tomlinson and Shawne Merriman haven't left, norhas Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. But given the razor-thin margins betweenthe AFC's elite clubs, New England might have edged ahead.

The Patriots wereback in the business of managing expectations last weekend, having shiftedtheir focus from free agency to the draft. "They don't hand out anytrophies in the NFL for what you do in March or April," Pioli said.Speaking of which, guess which NFL team is the only one with two first-roundchoices on April 28.

In New England,the rich don't just get richer. They get smarter.

SAMMY MORRIS

RB from Dolphins

DONTE' STALLWORTH

WR from Eagles

KYLE BRADY

TE from Jaguars

KELLEY WASHINGTON

WR from Bengals

WES WELKER

WR from Dolphins

ADALIUS THOMAS

LB from Ravens

The Super Bowl champ Colts have LOST key players andadded no one.

DOMINIC RHODES

RB to Raiders

NICK HARPER

CB to Titans

CATO JUNE

LB to Buccaneers

PHOTOJULIE JACOBSON/AP (BELICHICK)PATRIOT ACTS Belichick (top left) brought in playmaking linebacker Thomas (right), a new wideout corps and major blocking help. PHOTOPhotograph by Barry Taylor/WireImage.com[See caption above.] FIVE PHOTOS JON WAY/US PRESSWIRE (MORRIS); JOSEPH LABOLITO/WIREIMAGE.COM (STALLWORTH); CHRIS BERNACCHI/SPORTPICS (BRADY); ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES (WASHINGTON); KARL WRIGHT/US PRESSWIRE (WELKER) THREE PHOTOSWESLEY HITT/GETTY IMAGES; MICHAEL HICKEY/WIREIMAGE.COM; DON LARSON/WIREIMAGE.COM

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