Bill Belichick can be full of surprises — count Wednesday’s reported trade for Dwayne Allen among them. But Belichick is predictably unpredictable when it comes to making moves for the New England Patriots.
No one saw the Allen trade coming. But acquiring a helpful player via trade is par for the course for the Patriots.
Making a similarly splashy move at the start of free agency is not, which is why you shouldn’t be surprised if the San Francisco 49ers and Jacksonville Jaguars are throwing around money like Preston Waters in “Blank Check,” while Bill Belichick signs a hilariously under-the-radar player like he did in two straight offseasons with Brandon Gibson and Ramon Humber.
It’s nearly unheard of for the Patriots to sign a free agent without first meeting with him. And NFL unrestricted free agents can’t meet with new teams before the league years starts, so most organizations who are signing players to massive contracts Thursday at 4 p.m. are doing so blindly.
The only big-time outside unrestricted free agent the Patriots have signed on the first day of the new league year in recent memory is Danny Amendola, and that’s a player with whom New England had a previous relationship through offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Signing unrestricted free agents to massive contracts also is a fool’s errand 90 percent of the time. For every Aqib Talib, who helps his new team win a Super Bowl, there are nine like Torrey Smith or Jared Odrick who are cut only a couple of years later.
The Patriots make fairly big acquisitions every year, but they aren’t done when the ball drops at the new league year. They come through more creative and sensical means.
The Patriots now have traded for tight ends in two consecutive offseasons. They added Chris Hogan as a restricted free agent last offseason, and they eventually sign unrestricted free agents like Jabaal Sheard, Shea McClellin or Brandon Browner a few days into free agency when prices have dropped and after the Patriots have got to know them a little better through visits.
The Patriots’ method, like other teams, has its hits and misses. The Terrance Knighton signing was a failure last offseason. But there was little to no risk involved in the move. Miss on a player like Brock Osweiler, and it sets your franchise back.
There’s another element in play when it comes to free agency, and that’s conditional draft picks. The Patriots have a ton of high-profile free agents hitting the open market Thursday, and for any that are signed away, New England will receive more conditional picks. And for any similar player the Patriots sign, conditional picks will be taken away.
The Patriots obviously would be fine with losing conditional picks if the player and price is right, but it’s added incentive to spend wisely and conservatively on restricted free agents.
It’s at least worth noting the Patriots have a ton of cap room, so if they were to spend in free agency, this would be the year. But the smart move, and the one with a long history of success, is to try to sign their own free agents while waiting around until prices drop and players can visit Gillette Stadium before agreeing to a deal.
It might not be exciting, but it works.
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