But they're very much Patriot moves.
With New England scooping up veteran tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, nabbing injured tight end Jake Ballard from the New York Giants' waiver ploy, bringing in a stash of role player receivers and cutting former big name running back Joseph Addai to instead use proven pieces in the team's system, this group is looking like a vintage Patriots team. New England is sizing up players by how they fit in a very precise puzzle, and the team has grabbed several new names to reload for next year.
That's good news for Patriots fans eager for a Super Bowl return. But it's even better news for Bill Belichick, the one coach who doesn't fumble when he has the talent and role players he needs.
Belichick had what may have been his best coaching year last season. The Patriots were full of talent, but it wasn't the kind of record-breaking talent this team has had before. Instead, it was young players on offense, veterans here and there, and a defense completely built on piecing skill together in different combinations, with a game plan of luck and discipline the only thing keeping opponents from scoring.
But it was enough. The Patriots kept winning when they needed to, all the way to the Super Bowl, where they were beaten by a better team. The run-up to that appearance, where Belichick made one of his best-performing teams out of a stew of mismatched talent and potential, was an excellent showcase of why this team contends every year. Yes, the Patriots have Tom Brady. They have talent on both sides of the ball. But Belichick and his wizardry from the sideline is what makes the Patriots so intriguing to watch.
The Patriots are getting plenty of support heading into this season. A Super Bowl return is expected by many, and some are calling for 16-0. But while New England does have some of the best in the NFL in Brady at quarterback, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at tight end, and Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd at wide receiver, turning that offensive potential in production always proves to be tricky.
That's where Belichick — and the Patriots' little moves heading into camp — come into play. On top of Gronkowski's new contract and the jettisoning of awful, useless players like Chad Johnson, the Patriots have also been busy scouting and signing players. The Ballard pickup — mostly at the Giants' behest — was a great move toward the future, and it nettled a foe. Ballard won't see playing time this year with his torn ACL, but he's an option for future seasons.
The Patriots did one better by grabbing Shiancoe this week. At 32, Shiancoe won't be filling a usual tight end role, but with Gronkowski and Hernandez on the roster, the team doesn't want someone who would expect regular playing time. Shiancoe is the type of experienced player who can help the young guys find new parts of their game, spell them in long games and fill in if (knock on wood) injury strikes.
New England also has tight end Daniel Fells. Although on the physically unable to play list right now, Fells provides blocking help in the tight end game, a perfect complement to the do-it-all pass-catching Gronkowski and Hernandez. The Patriots easily have the best tight end group in the league in talent and balance — and they've done it without having to give up too many roster spots to the position this year.
It's not just the players New England signs, though. The Patriots are also a step ahead because Belichick isn't reluctant to get rid of pieces that don't fit. The running back situation is a prime example. Addai, who was brought in with hopes that he could do some running and mentor the younger backs after a solid tenure in Indianapolis, didn't wow the New England staff in his short time with the organization. He's now been let go, with Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead left to carry the load on their own. All are capable and have shown promise in their roles.
But keep an eye out for the one final back still in limbo for the Patriots: Kevin Faulk. New England appears to want to go through training camp and see how things shuffle out before making a decision on Faulk. But the team did keep him around last year as he came back from injury. Faulk's body may be failing him, but his versatility for the Patriots throughout the years has been enough to give him a second look. Don't be surprised if Belichick calls on him for another year, even if it's just to mentor the younger players and help out with a few third-down flip-outs or screens.
The running back situation may also dovetail quite nicely with the tight end surplus — this could be a chance for Hernandez to mix in a few more of his devastating runs from the fullback-type position Belichick played him in last year.
The Patriots' wide receiving corps, of course, could become one of the team's greatest strengths. New England wasn't shy about gathering a huge group of players for the position. Some will have to go, but Welker, Lloyd (experienced with new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels), Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth (back for a second round with the team), Julian Edelman (capable in several roles), Matthew Slater and Deion Branch have all shown they can work well in the Patriots' offense. Britt Davis, Jeremy Ebert and Jesse Holley will also compete for a spot on the team.
All of those receivers won't get time on the field, but it's well known that Belichick doesn't scout just for typical offensive roles. Some could make a big impact on special teams, and, with the legacy of Troy Brown in mind, some could be plugs in a defense that continues to have sketchiness on its back end (Edelman helped in that regard last season).
The defense also looks stronger coming in, with ready-to-play draft picks joining a linebacker corps that really came together last year. With a similar wealth of options as on the stashed offense, Belichick could have just as much room to play with his defensive pieces. He did an admirable job with last year's group, which was ready to crack at many points, and the defense can certainly be expected to do better now that it's stronger at several positions.
The Patriots certainly have the talent to contend for another Super Bowl next year, but the difference between a set of great players and a winning season is as easy as looking at last year's Eagles. It's not easy to pull the pieces together, coach them well, work through injuries and, ultimately, form a game plan week after week that can carry a team past its flaws to the top of the sport.
Belichick has proven to be a master of this in the past.
It's not just Brady, Gronkowski and Welker that make a team good. Knowing when to pick up a Shiancoe and ditch an Addai is just as vital.
Judging by his offseason moves, Belichick is ready to unleash the wizardry again — with perhaps the most loaded group he's ever had.
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