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Patriots' top 10 personnel moves of Bill Belichick era

The Patriots' dynasty was born out of one of the strangest scenes in football history. Less than a day after Bill Parcells abandoned the Jets' throne to his hand-picked top lieutenant, Bill Belichick stunningly scribbled his resignation as "HC of the NYJ."

Within 24 hours at the dawn of a new century, the Jets would lose two of the greatest coaches in NFL history.

Parcells and Patriots owner Robert Kraft managed to reach a cease-fire in the New York-New England border war, pulling off a regional blockbuster that ultimately evened the score for the momentous Babe Ruth crossroads exchange that tipped the balance of baseball power from Boston to the Big Apple for eight dominant decades.

The same organization that sent four draft picks to Kraft for the right to hire Parcells just three years earlier would collect three picks in return for Belichick's services.

At the time of that fateful trade, both franchises had just missed the playoffs with identical 8-8 records. Since then, Belichick has teamed with Tom Brady to commandeer 15 AFC East titles and eight conference championships.

While those two longstanding luminaries function as the unshakeable pillars underpinning the dynastic infrastructure, the Patriots also owe their unprecedented string of success to an ever-shifting cast of characters acquired via uncanny trades and prescient signings.

As much respect as Belichick garners as the gridiron's preeminent strategist, his brilliance as a team-builder is underappreciated. He understands a championship team is not comprised of the best 53 players, but the right 53.

"I've always believed the best coaches were the ones who understood personnel," former Patriots general manager Upton Bell wrote in his new book, "Present at the Creation." "It's one of the things that separate Bill Belichick from his peers. He not only knows personnel, he understands value, which is important with the salary cap."

As the Patriots embark on their eighth Super Bowl appearance this century, let's examine the most impactful personnel moves of the Belichick era.

1) April 29, 2007: Acquired wide receiver Randy Moss from the Raiders in exchange for a fourth-round pick.

While it's fun to imagine an alternate reality with Moss tracking down Brett Favre bombs in Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers returning to his Northern California roots, former Raiders owner Al Davis disputed a rumor that his deep-threat diva was nearly dealt to the Packers instead of the Patriots in 2007.

"You know how many teams turned Moss] down?" Davis said in "Al Davis: Behind the [Raiders Shield." "That guy in Green Bay thought he couldn't run anymore. Even Denver, where they'll take anybody, turned him down."

According to the book, Belichick nearly stole Moss from Lane Kiffin for the bargain-basement rate of a sixth-round pick before an "aghast" Davis stepped in. Accusing Belichick of trying to take advantage of his neophyte head coach, Davis managed to recoup a slightly higher price tag, eventually settling for a fourth-rounder -- still one of the great heists in football lore.

Written off as damaged goods after his infamous "I play when I want to play" statement took on a life of its own, Moss immediately metamorphized from Raiders malcontent to giddy Patriots dreamer. When Moss promptly informed Lions star Shaun Rogers that he was headed to New England, the Detroit defensive tackle complained, "Man, that's cheatin'."

Cheating it seemed to be, as Moss' unrivaled deep speed and leaping ability put the fear of god into the heart of opposing defenses, leaving the middle of the field wide open in a pick-your-poison passing attack that set a host of records en route to the NFL's only 16-0 season. As he had done in Minnesota with Randall Cunningham and Daunte Culpepper, Moss helped Brady reach new heights in a juggernaut campaign that would stand as a statistical outlier. The most gifted wideout in football history established a benchmark of his own, breaking Jerry Rice's single-season record with 23 touchdowns.

2) March 5, 2007: Acquired restricted free agent wide receiver Wes Welker from the Dolphins in exchange for second- and seventh-round draft picks.

If you can't beat him, trade for him. Nobody blamed Miami for capitulating when Belichick offered a Marshall Faulk-level price tag for a special teamer and No. 3 receiver who just happened to draw double teams from a flustered Patriots defense. Before Belichick and Josh McDaniels imported the shotgun spread attack from the college ranks to coincide with Welker's acquisition, smaller receivers with his niche skill set simply didn't merit significant playing time, much less mega contracts.

A decade ahead of their time, the 2007 Patriots ushered in the "coming-out party for the slot receiver," as NFL Network's Shaun O'Hara described Welker's arrival on the national scene. With Moss and Donte' Stallworth stretching the field, Welker tortured overmatched linebackers and safeties with option routes over the middle in an unstoppable aerial assault. Before long, an influx of Welker doppelgangers in the slot had rendered the fullback position nearly obsolete, forcing defenses to respond with extra defensive backs in the nickel package as the standard approach.

Welker went on to average 112 receptions in a six-season span as Brady's security blanket, earning league-wide acclaim as the premier slot receiver and inside route-runner of his generation. Exactly where he was expected to be when his quarterback's internal clock struck zero, Welker played a prominent role in the two greatest statistical offenses of all time: the 2007 Patriots and 2013 Broncos.

3) March 12, 2003: Signed safety Rodney Harrison.

Unceremoniously dumped by the Chargers after nine seasons as a Pro Bowl-caliber player in San Diego, Harrison arrived in New England with a massive chip on his shoulder. He immediately set about terrorizing Brady in practices, raising the team's intensity level and earning a captain's badge from his beaming head coach.

"Best practice player probably ever," Belichick remarked in NFL Network's "A Football Life: Rodney Harrison." "Ruffled a few feathers, not in a dirty way, just in a highly competitive way. It made everybody else better."

Perhaps the ultimate example of Belichick's penchant for squeezing Indian summer seasons out of veterans casually discarded as past their prime, Harrison earned All-Pro recognition as the catalyst at the back end of New England's swarming defense in back-to-back title runs. A disruptive playmaker and bone-jarring tackler, the ball-hawking Harrison picked off four passes in the 2004 playoffs, including an 87-yard pick-six against the Steelers and a game-sealing interception in the Super Bowl XXXIX victory over the Eagles.

Had he landed with the high-profile Patriots a couple of years earlier, Harrison would likely garner more serious Hall of Fame consideration.

4) March 16, 2001: Signed linebacker Mike Vrabel.

The Titans' newly anointed head coach was once the quintessential Patriot, the defense's answer to tough, smart, selfless jack-of-all-trades wideout Troy Brown. Signed away from his underutilized specials teams role in Pittsburgh, Vrabel struck gold under Belichick, making it through his entire first season without a single mental mistake.

Swinging between defensive end, outside linebacker and inside linebacker while moonlighting at tight end, Vrabel played in 125 games across eight seasons in New England, collecting three Super Bowl rings. He finally earned a belated Pro Bowl nod after registering a career-high 12.5 sacks in that legendary 2007 season.

Upon sending Vrabel to Kansas City at the behest of former right-hand man Scott Pioli two years later, Belichick offered praise of the highest order:

"When Mike arrived in 2001, we knew we were adding a solid outside linebacker," Belichick raved. "But where Mike took it from there exceeded our highest hopes. Mike Vrabel epitomizes everything a coach could seek in a professional football player: toughness, intelligence, play-making, leadership, versatility and consistency at the highest level. ... The toughest aspect of my job is the day I stop coaching people like Mike, who did everything in his power to contribute to team success. Of all the players I have coached in my career, there is nobody I enjoyed working with more than Mike."

5) April 19, 2004: Acquired running back Corey Dillon from Bengals in exchange for a second-round pick.

Belichick holds no sports figure in greater respect than Paul Brown, the father of professional football. Among the many lessons gleaned from Brown's innovative career was his philosophy toward players with questionable reputations. Brown was willing to overlook a checkered past as long as he had reason to believe the player would not be a disruptive influence.

"We discovered the root of his problem," Brown said of one alleged bad seed in his 1979 biography "PB: The Paul Brown Story." "He simply did not like the losing team or its future. ... I sympathized with his discouragement, and I kept thinking, 'Maybe if he were with a better team, like the Browns, he'd play well.' "

As Belichick knew all too well, that was the dispiriting situation in which Dillon was mired with a downtrodden Cincinnati outfit. Begging Bengals owner Mike Brown (Paul's son) for his freedom, the embittered back once claimed he'd rather "flip burgers" than continue to waste away with the woebegone franchise on the banks of the Ohio River.

Battling the effects of a season-long groin injury, Dillon finally flopped in 2003, failing to top 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in seven NFL seasons. Belichick immediately seized upon the opportunity, sending a second-round pick to Brown in return for the most ferocious power back in the game. Dillon went on to set a franchise single-season record with 1,635 rushing yards as the offensive backbone of the 2004 champions. As was the case with Moss, Belichick targeted a prideful, uniquely talented veteran surrounded by ineptitude, granting a new lease on life with the game's model franchise.

6) March 12, 2014: Signed cornerback Darrelle Revis to a two-year, $32 million contract.

Loath to make big free-agent splashes, Belichick finally hit a home run with Revis after banging out a long single with pass rusher Rosevelt Colvin in 2003 (seven years, $30 million) and going down swinging with linebacker Adalius Thomas in 2007 (five years, $35 million).

It's fitting that the NFL's consummate mercenary-for-hire defected to Belichick's calculating annual contender to polish off a Hall of Fame resume with a long-awaited Super Bowl ring.

There's a strong argument to be made that no cornerback ever played the position at a higher level than Revis did from 2009 through 2011. In the prime of his career, no NFL player was more competitive, more intense or more prepared than the lonesome lockdown corner who earned the moniker Revis Island. Those traits were enhanced under Belichick's tutelage, as Revis would go on to insist that his career reached its apogee in New England.

"I think I'm better than I was before," Revis said in 2015. "I'm smarter and way more intelligent at the game. I had a great learning experience last year with Bill. He helped me in a lot of ways in seeing the game in a different way."

7) Dec. 31, 2014: Signed running back Dion Lewis to a reserve/future contract.

Belichick deserves extra credit for unearthing a rare gem after Lewis sat out the entire 2014 season with nary an interest from NFL teams. Two years before Alvin Kamaratook the league by storm in New Orleans, Lewis had emerged as the gold standard for eye-catching elusiveness, leading his offense to an incredible string of scores in 31 consecutive quarters to open the 2015 season.

After missing the first two months of the 2016 campaign to an ACL tear, Lewis returned to set an NFL record as the first player in postseason history to record a touchdown via run, pass and kick return in the Divisional Round victory over the Texans. When Brady struggled through an Achilles injury last month, Lewis excelled as the focal point of the offense, ditching his dancing style to bulldoze through tackles in the trenches. From Week 12 through the end of the regular season, only MVP candidate Todd Gurley generated more rushing yards than Lewis' 510.

How important has Lewis been since Belichick pulled him off the scrap heap? Over the past three seasons, the Patriots have racked up 24 wins without a loss when Lewis carries the ball at least six times.

8) March 13, 2013: Signed wide receiver Danny Amendola to a five-year, $31 million contract.

Across the past four postseasons, the Patriots have overcome double-digit, second-half deficits against the Ravens, Seahawks, Falcons and Jaguars. While the spotlight rightly shines on Brady's heroics, it's amazing how instrumental Amendola has been to that succession of miracles.

He hauled in a pair of touchdowns versus Baltimore in the 2014 Divisional Round, tying the game at 28 with a 51-yard score late in the third quarter. Mastering the fourth quarter ever since, he beat the secondaries of Seattle and Atlanta to pay dirt with the Lombardi Trophy on the line and sent Super Bowl LI into overtime with a two-point conversion. After dispatching the Jaguars with two more crunch-time scores, Amendola stood as Belichick's dictionary-definition of a "good football player."

Deserving of an upgrade on Rob Gronkowski's clunky Danny "Playoff" Amendola christening, Brady's good-luck charm will go down in New England lore as a legacy-boosting playoff legend.

9) Nov. 1, 2012: Acquired cornerback Aqib Talib and a seventh-round pick from the Buccaneers in exchange for a fourth-round pick.

A notorious troublemaker in Tampa, Talib was in the midst of a four-game suspension when Belichick rolled the dice at the 2012 trade deadline. The gamble paid off immediately, as Talib began locking down opposing wideouts in New England, earning the first of five consecutive Pro Bowl berths in 2013. He would capitalize on his season-and-a-half of success under Belichick, landing a six-year, $57 million contract with the Broncos in 2014.

As much as any deal in the Kraft era, this one is evidence of the unique competitive advantage provided by Belichick's unparalleled job security. No other coach or general manager has his fingerprints on every aspect of the organization, a lofty perch that allows Belichick to take otherwise prohibitive risks when the opportunity strikes his fancy -- and foresight.

10) Aug. 3, 2001: Signed linebacker Roman Phifer for the veteran's minimum.

A grizzled, 10-year veteran of hopelessly overmatched teams, Phifer waited until summer to sign after telling his agent that he'd rather sit out the season than settle for a bleak situation in New England. It didn't take long for Phifer to adjust his outlook, emerging as a team leader and reliable tackler capable of hanging with -- and punishing -- scatbacks and tight ends in coverage.

Phifer is listed here as a placeholder for a franchise-altering 2001 free agency class comprising the core of a nameless team that would end up shocking the "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams, kick-starting two decades of dominance. That cast of Belichick-imported rejects and misfits included leading rusher Antowain Smith, playmaker David Patten, hard-nosed linebacker Bryan Cox, versatile defensive lineman Anthony Pleasant, cornerback Terrell Buckley and special teams ace Larry Izzo -- in addition to Vrabel.

"We prided ourselves on being intellectuals and students of the game," Phifer told author Michael Holley in the 2016 book "Belichick and Brady." "And obviously that's a reflection of Bill.

"Bill always told us, 'Know your personnel.' You have to know when and why a change-of-pace running back is out there. What's this tight end likely to do? Know your personnel. I use it in everything. I can be talking to a friend of mine who's complaining about a relationship. 'Hey man, you've got to know your personnel ...' "

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