As free agency approached, there was much speculation that the Patriots might uncharacteristically sign a big name offensive player in order to boost their offensive firepower. They had the cap space in order to do so, but then all was quiet in Foxboro during the first days of free agency.
Big name after big name went off the board leaving Patriots fans wondering what Bill Belichick had up his sleeve. Scott Chandler and Brandon LaFell were released as they were both ineffective for the Patriots this past season freeing up even more space.
Chris Hogan: "Just to be considered to be a part of this team is a great honor."
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) March 14, 2016
A relatively unknown wide receiver would be signed from the Bills: Chris Hogan. Hogan is a former lacrosse player turned football player that has a reputation as a very tough athlete. While he wasn’t a flashy name that fans expected, Hogan is a player that can provide consistent production and catch the ball.
So long to Chandler Jones, a Super Bowl champ and the greatest NFL Films Mic'd Up Patriot ever.
— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) March 15, 2016
It turned also turned out that Belichick was already planning an effort to deal Chandler Jones. The Patriots are facing a very difficult situation in which they have to sign several talented, young defensive players. It became apparent that Jones would be the odd man out.
— Bleacher Report NFL (@BR_NFL) March 16, 2016
Jones was sent to Arizona for offensive guard Jonathan Cooper and the Cardinals second round pick. Later on that same day, Long was signed to replace Jones at defensive end. The Patriots saved $7 million of cap space by dealing Jones and it enabled them to sign Long to a one-year deal. While Long has been inconsistent and riddled with injuries the past two seasons, they have Jabaal Sheard ready to play if Long is an ineffective disappointment. They also bolstered their offensive line depth with former first round pick Cooper. Both moves are low risk, with potentially high reward.
Pats have fairly quick decision to make with newly-arrived guard Jonathan Cooper https://t.co/cgl6hQVv23
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) March 15, 2016
The Patriots let players like LaFell, Chandler, and Jones go but have already largely accounted for their absence. LaFell produced zero touchdowns for the Patriots in 2015. They already have his replacement with the signing of Hogan. Jones is gone but they managed to acquire Long the same day. The Patriots are due to sign a backup tight end, but they already have the all-world Rob Gronkowski on the roster. The most recent tight end to visit with the Patriots was Clay Harbor.
— The MMQB (@theMMQB) March 16, 2016
New England still has holes to fill, but cap space and players remain available for the Patriots to evaluate. Belichick once again proved that he is not afraid to cut ties with big name players in order to do what is best for the franchise long term.
The biggest question is who does Belichick turn to at the running back position? There is still a wide range of running backs available like Alfred Morris, Arian Foster, Joique Bell, James Starks, Ronnie Hillman, Chris Johnson, Bernard Pierce, and Ahmad Bradshaw. Don’t rule out the return of LeGarette Blount, either. The Patriots do not require a big name at this position in order to win a Super Bowl. They just need someone who will reliably run the ball, stay healthy, and not fumble.
Pats trade away a player BB knows he can't keep long-term, adds a draft pick, clears cap & then signs a vet to help replace. So Belichick
— Derek Havens (@PatriotsHaven) March 16, 2016
The Patriots have made moves that will enable them to offer more significant contracts to their pending free agents like Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Malcolm Butler. In turn, Belichick has put the Patriots in a better position for the long run financially and competitively. The patience and reluctance to be dragged into the free agent frenzy has left the Patriots in a better place than they were in a just a month ago.
Waiting for the free agency market to shake out has left the Patriots with a degree of leverage over the market. Belichick has once again proved his general manager prowess and the Patriots are sitting pretty before the NFL draft.
Stay tuned. Belichick is not yet finished with free agency and will likely add more players to the roster in coming days. Unsigned veterans remain, and the Patriots will find out who is willing to take a pay cut in order to be apart of a championship run.