Make the Right Call  

 

New England Patriots experience talent drain after Super season

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It isn't exactly easy-peasy letting the best defensive back in football walk out the door.

That is precisely what the New England Patriots' offseason will be remembered for: avoiding the giant paycheck owed to the enemy-turned-ally who helped the franchise win its fourth Lombardi Trophy. It was a calculated risk, in reverse -- not keeping that marquee player, Darrelle Revis, who might represent the difference between taking home the hardware and falling on hard playoff times.

We've been doing these "Make the Right Call" pieces for a few weeks now. Last week, it was the Chicago Bears; the week prior, the New York Jets. New York received high marks for signing Revis. Should the Patriots be downgraded for letting him go?

Elliot Harrison examines some of the busiest NFL teams this offseason and attempts to answer whether the moves they've made will pay off in the 2015 campaign.

Now, [adopts President Obama voice]: Let me be clear ... In evaluating the actions of Bill Belichick and Co. since their Super Bowl XLIX triumph, there have been plenty of transactions -- or transgressions -- that didn't involve a dude who has an imaginary island bearing his name. But that's clearly the proper place to start.

Necessary evil

Yes, Revis might have been THE key component on a defense that allowed the Patriots to retain "Evil Empire" status by winning the Super Bowl once again, but the bloated price tag he'd demand in 2015 was just too rich for New England to keep the shutdown extraordinaire in that weird Pats uni. (Please go back to the '80s look. Pretty please.)

Twenty million bucks for a corner? That's franchise-quarterback money. The Patriots are already paying for one of those in Tom Brady, and you can see how donating a quarter of the salary cap to two guys would hardly be attractive. Especially after winning a Super Bowl. The Patriots swung for the fences -- signing Revis last offseason -- and legitimately hit a home run.

In the aftermath, they cut bait on this costly cleanup hitter of a cornerback. Shrewd business. Or was it?

The devil's advocate

Typing that subtitle makes me think of "The Devil's Own," a weird movie about the red man himself, played by Al Pacino. Keanu Reeves hadn't dropped into the matrix quite yet, but he was a few year's past hanging out with Bill S. Preston at the Circle K when this movie came out. Oh, wait, I'm thinking of the flick that actually was titled "Devil's Advocate." That other one was a crappy Brad Pitt-Harrison Ford drama.

Yes, those movies cross up the memory wires -- just like Darrelle Revis' vagabond career in the free-agency era. Three thoughts come to mind:

A) It's the saddest state of the modern NFL when guys go from one rival squad to the next and back again while everyone is desensitized. Revis was drafted by the Jets, won a title with the Pats and now he's with the Jets once more. What?! The Ravens should go ahead and lure Troy Polamalu out of retirement while we're at it.

B) Most folks feel that Revis was the key ingredient that pushed New England over the top. What weird place are we in where these guys are allowed to walk out the door? These Patriots aren't the 1997 Florida Marlins, for crying out loud.

C) Does anyone even remember Revis Cover 2-ing in a Bucs uniform?

From both a fan's and a league analyst's perspective, Revis' game of musical franchises represents one of the low points of salary-cap football. A player of his caliber should, in theory, stay with the team he excels for ...

... that said, let's throw the "in theory" part out the window. I think you can make the case that the Patriots should have reworked Revis' deal and paid him. Sure, when they failed to get it done by March 10 (when they had to make a decision on his $20 million option for 2015), he was exposed to free agency. Yet, the Pats still could've re-signed him to a contract that lessened his impact on 2015, paying him more in 2016 and '17, when the league's salary cap should be on the rise anyway.

Make sense?

Basically, we're saying that if this guy was the difference between the club not winning the Super Bowl for a full decade and getting over the hump, why not do whatever massaging you can as an organization to keep him in the fold?

OK, enough about Mr. Island.

Vince-sanity?

Was losing Vince Wilfork significant? You bet. Do I understand the thought process? Absolutely. Wilfork will turn 34 this season. How many guys do you want banging around with guards and centers for a dozen years?

Most of the time, it's better to get out on a player too early than too late. Thus, parting ways with Wilfork makes some sense, especially when the move saves $8 million in salary-cap space. These types of decisions are never easy, and we've seen a number of these situations this offseason -- like the 49ers allowing their all-time leading rusher, Frank Gore, to hit the open market. Actually, look no further than Wilfork's new team, Houston, which apparently felt Andre Johnson's best days were parked somewhere around 2010.

The one that got away

While Wilfork has exited his prime, Shane Vereen is just entering it. And while the Pats definitely have other backfield options to run the football, they do not have another guy with Vereen's unique skill set.

Vereen was a key cog in the passing game, whether he was running wheel routes, lining up wide or serving as Brady's safety valve, like he did so well in Super Bowl XLIX (racking up 11 catches). Vereen proved he could perform in clutch situations. Oh, and he hasn't fumbled since 2013. If you haven't noticed, Belichick kinda values ball security.

Other departures of note

Brandon Browner, CB: He took over coverage on the sizable Chris Matthews down the stretch in the Super Bowl, a move that helped New England emerge as the winner in Arizona. Still, the Patriots' coaching staff can do without the boatload of penalties, and they saved nearly $5 million against the cap.

Dan Connolly, OG: This was a key figure on the line over the last several years, but the Patriots are content to move on. And considering he's still available in free agency -- and has only taken one visit of late (Tampa Bay) -- it appears Belichick knew what he was doing here.

Stevan Ridley, RB: It didn't seem like the Patriots were even the slightest bit interested in bringing back their former 1,200-yard rusher. With LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray and James White -- last year's fourth-round pick -- all available, this move was understandable.

The key move

Now, the Patriots didn't let everyone walk out the door, as they re-upped stud safety Devin McCourty. This was an absolute must. New England got him under contract right before he was going to hit the open market with plenty of interested suitors. The Patriots obviously knew they were not going to exercise Revis' huge option, and thus could (and eventually would) lose the shutdown corner. With the resulting youth of New England's secondary, retaining a very-much-in-his-prime McCourty was a necessity. And judging by the five-year, $47.5 million deal the safety received, this is exactly how Belichick and Co. saw it.

Typical Patriots

Oh, and the Pats, per usual, made a nice under-the-radar pickup. Perhaps I fumbled in not mentioning Jabaal Sheard until now. A two-year, $11 million deal? Yeah, I see a lot of potential value here. Why? After all, the guy logged just two sacks for Cleveland in 2014. Well, Sheard was playing away from his strengths as a standup linebacker in the Browns' 3-4 defense last year. The Patriots likely will use him as more of a 4-3 defensive end (although they are sure to mix it up). Oh, and Sheard still recorded 20 QB hurries last year and only turns 26 next month. Lots of upside here, folks. Way to make use of the Revis ... er, available money.

Have the Patriots made the right calls?

The Patriots made the prudent calls. Saying they were the "right" ones is a bit difficult at this point, given the quality of players and locker room presences who are now gone. Fans will mention that they've weathered these marketplace storms before. Sure. But some of those storm windows they employed didn't quite replace guys like Willie McGinest or Richard Seymour, skilled veterans they let walk in the past. Before winning it all last year, the organization had seen nine seasons of very goodness, not greatness. And for this franchise, the latter is the only goal.

This was an offseason of calculated risk-taking.

The Pats turned down the opportunity to re-rent a truly premier player while mostly sticking to the mid-tier contracts of the Danny Amendolas of the world, hoping that a genius coach, great assistants and a Hall of Fame quarterback can compensate. That's risky. We'll see how things work out this fall.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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