Commentary

Pats' moves are smart, not splashy

Signing Wilfork, Banta-Cain and Neal are big steps in the right direction

Updated: March 6, 2010, 3:52 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

What the New England Patriots accomplished Friday should spark the same passionate reaction we saw when they aggressively and uncharacteristically signed free agent Adalius Thomas to a lucrative long-term deal in 2007.

But it probably won't.

Remember the buzz at that time? The possibilities seemed endless, with Bill Belichick's brilliant defensive mind working overtime to get the most out of a versatile, athletic, chiseled talent like Thomas. A big-time, $7 million-per-year free agent from another team always seems to create that type of hope.

[+] EnlargeTully Banta-Cain
Ron Chenoy/US PresswirePats outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain signed a three-year, $13.5 million deal.

The Patriots didn't deliver that hope to their fan base on the first day of free agency Friday, but what they accomplished was just as, if not more, significant.

In signing nose tackle Vince Wilfork and outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain to deals totaling $53.5 million, and agreeing to a two-year contract with veteran offensive lineman Stephen Neal, they retained three players who will be key cogs in the ongoing process of building a team they hope will compete for another Super Bowl championship.

Critics might say the Patriots simply maintained the status quo, and that's not good enough based on what unfolded in 2009.

If looking solely at this snapshot in time, it's a point that is tough to argue.

But Super Bowls aren't won on the first day of free agency in March. If they were, the Washington Redskins would be building a new trophy case each year, and the Chicago Bears would already be booking their Super Bowl XLV reservations for North Texas.

These were only the first steps for the Patriots. There are likely to be more re-signings (Kevin Faulk, Leigh Bodden and Jarvis Green are top Patriots still on the market), and perhaps a few other free-agent targets from a generally weak NFL crop, not to mention draft choices and trade possibilities.

The picture will continue to come into focus over the coming days and months. Solid opportunities to further improve the team will be there.

The same process unfolds each year, and where the Patriots have hurt themselves of late is with too many spotty pro player evaluations. Thomas, the player who generated such excitement in 2007, is perhaps the prime example of a major breakdown in that area.

The best NFL teams seem to identify the quality talent on their roster and keep as much of it as possible, while continuing to feed the pipeline through the draft each year. Then they complement that core in free agency.

[+] EnlargeStephen Neal
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesStephen Neal and the Patriots agreed to a two-year contract, a source said.

In Wilfork, Banta-Cain and Neal, the Patriots are focusing on the first part of the equation. Just because the Patriots' 2009 season was a disappointment to many, especially the way it ended, that doesn't mean there wasn't quality and leadership on parts of the roster. All three fit the bill in those areas.

As owner Robert Kraft previously said, the team is willing to pay for quality, and Friday's opening of the checkbook is the latest evidence of that.

So when summing up the Patriots' first day of free agency, there was no Julius Peppers-like splash and little of the buzz that would have accompanied a trade for a big-name cornerback with off-field problems and tackling deficiencies like Antonio Cromartie, whose production hasn't always matched his hype. Those types of acquisitions seem to feed the quick-fix type of mindset, despite annual evidence that such quick fixes seldom pan out as desired.

The Patriots' moves Friday probably won't be viewed as splash-worthy. They won't generate much hype, or, to some, enough hope.

But they should.

This was a big day for the Patriots, a positive step in the ever-evolving process of building a team.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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