Commentary

Big splashes have soaked Patriots

Through the years, Bill Belichick has had more success with smaller-scale free agents

Updated: July 25, 2011, 9:55 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Bill Belichick doesn't telegraph too many passes. He seems to enjoy keeping his competitors, and everyone else charting the New England Patriots' moves, in a guessing mode.

Just when you think they don't spend big in free agency, the Patriots head coach opens the vault for Rosevelt Colvin (2003) and Adalius Thomas (2007).

Just when you think he doesn't value the guard position and figure he won't invest a first-round draft choice in that area, he selects Logan Mankins (2005).

[+] EnlargeAdalius Thomas
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaBig-ticket signing Adalius Thomas caused a buzz, but fizzled out after his third season with Bill Belichick.

Just when it seems easy to say he focuses solely on "Patriots type" players, he rolls the dice in trades for Corey Dillon (2004) and Randy Moss (2007).

And this offseason, when it seems clear cut that the Patriots need to target some pass-rush help, Belichick stands pat in the draft.

So when the question is asked "How aggressive will the Patriots be in free agency" this year, well, good luck answering that one. The unpredictable Belichick has been tough to pin down over the past 11 years.

Maybe a better question is: "How aggressive should the Patriots be in free agency?"

The answer from this perspective: A carbon copy of 2010 would be most realistic -- and effective.

The Patriots' free-agent moves last year didn't overwhelm at the time they were made but turned out to be solid. The focus was mostly on taking care of their own (e.g. Vince Wilfork), then targeting a specific area with respected veteran tight end Alge Crumpler, who later became a team captain, and defensive lineman Gerard Warren.

Big-splash signings create excitement, but the approach taken by the Patriots in 2010 seems smarter and more likely this year, especially when factoring in the team's current salary-cap status (about $7 million of space before signing rookies and restricted free agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis).

The Patriots could follow the 2010 blueprint by locking up Matt Light and/or Logan Mankins, then looking outside the organization for a veteran boost on the interior of the offensive line and at outside linebacker/rush defensive end. David Baas (49ers) and Scott Mruczkowski (Chargers) are tough, no-frills, Crumpler-type options on the line, while Matt Roth (Browns) and Manny Lawson (49ers) would provide help in the front seven.

The focus will soon be on what moves the Patriots make, but until then, here is a ranking of the team's work (from best to worst) under Belichick when it comes to signing free agents from other teams:

2001

An unprecedented haul that included linebackers Mike Vrabel, Roman Phifer, Larry Izzo and Bryan Cox, along with defensive lineman Anthony Pleasant, running back Antowain Smith and receiver David Patten.

2003

Landing safety Rodney Harrison was arguably Belichick's best move, while cornerback Tyrone Poole was a solid contributor to a Super Bowl championship team. Linebacker Colvin came aboard as well.

2000

Offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi (three) and defensive lineman Bobby Hamilton (two) went on to win multiple Super Bowl rings playing unsung roles at the line of scrimmage. Cornerback Otis Smith also was part of this group.

2010

Crumpler not only became a big part of the offense, but was a leader in the locker room who played a big role in bringing along draft picks Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Defensive lineman Warren also was solid. Receiver Torry Holt and defensive lineman Damione Lewis didn't stick.

2004

Keith Traylor started 10 games at nose tackle, helping the team with Vince Wilfork as the Patriots replaced Ted Washington at the heart of the 3-4 defense. Punter Josh Miller also did his part.

2009

The Patriots moved quickly to trade Matt Cassel and Vrabel to create salary cap space, but didn't get bang for their bucks in signings Chris Baker (tight end), Fred Taylor (running back), Shawn Springs (cornerback) and Joey Galloway (receiver). On the flip side, outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain and cornerback Leigh Bodden had big years.

2007

While the big splash with linebacker Thomas fizzled out after his third season, and Kyle Brady didn't last more than a season as a big blocking tight end, running back Sammy Morris and receivers Donte Stallworth and Kelley Washington contributed.

2006

Receiver Reche Caldwell led the team with 61 receptions but turned out to be a one-year rental before the Patriots restocked at the position the following year. Linebacker Junior Seau added a leadership presence.

2002

Tight end Christian Fauria won two Super Bowl rings and defensive lineman Rick Lyle added depth, while receiver Donald Hayes and defensive lineman Steve Martin didn't pan out.

2005

Class was headlined by cornerback Chad Scott, receiver Tim Dwight and linebackers Monty Beisel and Chad Brown. Receiver David Terrell never emerged. Maybe the best move was quarterback Doug Flutie, who created headlines with a drop-kick.

2008

Not much to show after bringing cornerback Deltha O'Neal, running back LaMont Jordan, receiver Sam Aiken, safety Tank Williams, cornerback Fernando Bryant, cornerback Lewis Sanders, linebacker Victor Hobson and cornerback Jason Webster aboard.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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