It's like running downstairs on Christmas morning and realizing there's no Red Ryder BB gun under the tree. Surely, the NFL free agency period begins Thursday at midnight, but don't expect the Patriots to go out and get crazy. The last time they did — with linebacker Adalius Thomas — they basically shot themselves in the eye.
For the most part, the routine has remained the same in New England. There will be some initial excitement over the possibility of adding a high-priced free agent, but those feelings will taper off as the big names sign with other teams and go off the board. Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots have really only signed three marquee free agents: Rodney Harrison, Rosevelt Colvin and Thomas.
Obviously, the strategy to stay away from spending big money has paid off for the Patriots, who have won three Super Bowls and missed the playoffs just twice in the last nine seasons. Plus, in two of the instances when the Patriots did shell out some extra cake, Colvin (injury) and Thomas (injury and a clash with Belichick) haven't been worth it.
Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers and Cardinals middle linebacker Karlos Dansby will probably get the two biggest contracts this spring on the NFL's open market. And since this is a shallow class of unrestricted free agents, each will likely receive exceedingly high offers, which will make them even more unattractive to the financially conservative Patriots.
While that strategy can be boring in March, you can't argue with the results from September to January. After all, the Patriots won more games in the last decade than any team in the league — that is, of course, if you count playoff games, which evidently don't matter to Bill Polian.
Anyway, the Patriots figure to be active in free agency, but they'll filter through the next talent tier. At the end of the 2009 season, 14 of the 53 players on the active roster landed in Foxboro via free agency, and nine of them were signed last year. It was a talented group, too, featuring the likes of cornerbacks Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, safety Brandon McGowan and running back Fred Taylor. Instead of going after the likes of Albert Haynesworth or Bart Scott, the Patriots used their budget to add quality depth that filled out their roster.
During this free-agency period, the Patriots could potentially target wide receivers Kevin Walter or Muhsin Muhammad, fullback Tony Richardson, offensive lineman Bobbie Williams, defensive end/outside linebacker Aaron Kampman, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa or cornerback Nick Harper. The Patriots could also get a little more creative on the trading front by going after Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin or Bears tight end Greg Olsen, who are both reportedly available and affordable.
But in reality, the Pats will first look in-house. They obviously still have some business to take care of with defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, but aside from that, they might want to ensure they keep their own free agents, such as Bodden, Banta-Cain, defensive end Jarvis Green and running back Kevin Faulk. Bodden, after all, is the best cornerback on the market for the Patriots' system, and losing him would be a tough blow to bear.
So, when the clock strikes midnight, don't expect the Patriots to break Robert Kraft's bank account. It might not be the recipe for epic theater, but they've proven time and again that a bout with offseason boredom can be cured with winning in the fall and winter.