Sometimes the New England Patriots lose players in free agency and it seems like an unwillingness to move enough off their negotiating stance is the primary reason. What unfolded late Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning was something altogether different.
When cornerback Aqib Talib reached a six-year, $57 million contract with the Denver Broncos that included $26 million in bonuses and guarantees, it was simply a case of another team taking things to the outer-most limits that didn’t seem possible when the process began.
The Patriots weren’t going there because of Talib’s injury history, and when the emotion is stripped away from the shock of the team losing its No. 1 corner, can you honestly blame them?
This is the part of free agency that makes it so hard to project; all it takes is one team to blow things out of the water, and that’s what the Broncos did with Talib, who instantly upgrades their secondary and makes the Patriots’ weaker.
The Patriots went into their negotiation with Talib in recent weeks with that in mind. The Broncos didn’t, and that was obvious with the final contract numbers.
Furthermore, Talib’s signing highlights the differing core philosophies between the two franchises who vied for the AFC championship last season. They couldn’t be approaching things from more opposite end zones.
If the Broncos’ aggressive approach produces a Super Bowl championship in 2014 and then a steep drop-off in future years because this type of approach is hard to sustain, the locals in Denver probably won’t mind one bit. In fact, it’s what some in New England have been calling for the Patriots do as quarterback Tom Brady’s “window” gets shorter and shorter.
But the Patriots don’t believe in that, in part because of the high injury rate in football, as owner Robert Kraft explained at the Super Bowl.
“I don’t ever believe in selling your soul for a bowl of [porridge],” Kraft said recently on 98.5 The Sports Hub.
Well, the Broncos just heated up one extra-large bowl of porridge.
Now the Patriots, long prideful of their slow-but-steady successful approach, are left to pick up the pieces without Talib. The pressure intensifies to do so.
There are still some solid cornerbacks for the taking, including one -- Darrelle Revis -- who would be an instant upgrade over Talib. But Revis likely won’t come cheap either, and we still have doubts about that ultimately unfolding.
A more likely scenario, it seems, would be to simply “trade” cornerbacks with the Broncos and sign Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as a free agent; it will likely be a lot cheaper to do so, both in total dollars and length of commitment. And while Rodgers-Cromartie isn’t as complete a corner as Talib, he has similar coverage skills in his ability to play man and hold his own. Tarell Brown (49ers), Antonio Cromartie (Jets), Cortland Finnegan (Rams), Brandon Browner (Seahawks), Walter Thurmond (Seahawks) and Tracy Porter (Raiders) are a few other options on the market.
Surely, the Patriots would have preferred to keep Talib if price tags weren’t an issue.
But as it turned out, this was one of those rare cases where the cost was so far out of line that the discipline to walk away trumps all.
CONGRATS TO MY BROTHER LIB! YOU DESERVE IT BIG BRO! THE BEST CORNER IN THE LEAGUE AND ITS TIME YOU GOT PAID LIKE IT!! pic.twitter.com/cem22QtKJ2— LeGarrette Blount (@LG_Blount) March 12, 2014
What a great guy!! Glad I got a chance to not only play with you but, have the chance to compete against you everyday! Congrats my boy, Aqib— Kenbrell Thompkins (@KTdaWinner) March 12, 2014
A few initial thoughts:
Time to line up contingency plans. Could Darrelle Revis really be in play for the Patriots? I've considered it a long shot to this point, but Talib's defection, coupled with the Buccaneers' plans to release Revis if a trade can't be consummated, alters the picture a bit. I still think a more likely option is a free agent like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie or even Cortland Finnegan, both of whom would likely come on shorter-term, lower-money deals. But depending on what market unfolds for Revis, the thought can no longer be dismissed as strictly a fantasy.
Franchise tag regrets? If the Patriots projected that this would be the market for Talib, one wonders if they might have more strongly considered the franchise tag on a one-year deal ($11.8 million), even though it would have been a big hit on their cap. This deal for Talib highlights how the cornerback market has exploded this year. I'm not sure many saw this coming after last year's buyer's market at the position.
Talib's presence will be missed -- on and off the field. The Patriots took a risk in trading a fourth-round draft choice for Talib in November 2012, but Talib was, by almost all accounts, a model citizen on and off the field in his 1.5 seasons in New England. Players and coaches noted how he brought a presence to the meeting room, and on the field, his ability to match up with opponents' top pass-catchers was something coaches built game plans around. It goes without saying, this is a big hit to the Patriots' defense.
Talib's football journey. Talib didn't reveal much about his personal side in his time in New England, but for Broncos fans curious for a closer look, here was Talib recapping his "football journey" from this past January. He was a great interview.
Denver's window vs. Patriots' long-range approach. There is a significant philosophical difference in the way the Broncos and Patriots build their teams, and this move epitomizes it. The Broncos were one of the NFL's most aggressive teams, in terms of free-agent spending, on Day 1 of the 2014 league year. And they might not be done, with former Cowboys pass-rushing stud DeMarcus Ware reportedly set for a visit. Last year, they also poached receiver Wes Welker from the Patriots. They are all-in. Those moves run in contrast with the Patriots' slow-but-steady approach.
With the New England Patriots last season, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Talib earned the first Pro Bowl selection of his six-year career.
Talib, 28, totaled four interceptions and 14 pass breakups last season and was often used to match up against an opponent's top threat, which was outside the norm for a Bill Belichick-coached defense.
Injuries have also knocked Talib out of the last two AFC Championship games.
ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss contributed to this report.
The biggest takeaways from the day:
All quiet surrounding Aqib Talib ... until Denver pounced. With top cornerbacks Brent Grimes (Dolphins), Sam Shields (Packers) and Vontae Davis (Colts) re-signing with their teams, and Alterraun Verner (Buccaneers) inking a deal late Tuesday, it initially left Talib as the top remaining corner on the market. Verner’s reported deal (4 years, $26.5 million, $14 million guaranteed) came in low compared to the other top corners and at that moment, from a Patriots perspective, it seemed like a positive development that Talib didn’t generate an immediate market. But then the Broncos swooped in with a big-money deal for Talib that was a shocker.
Wesley Woodyard an early target. With a top linebacker trio of Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, the Patriots weren’t forecast to be aggressive at the position early in free agency. But Woodyard’s availability had the Patriots springing to action to bring the former Denver Bronco to town on Wednesday, and Woodyard is scheduled to visit the Tennessee Titans after coming to Foxborough, according to ESPN’s Josina Anderson. It’s rare to see the Patriots target an undersized linebacker this aggressively, but with more of the game being played in sub defenses (67 percent of the snaps for New England in 2013), it appears that the Patriots view a speedy, coverage-based 'backer as an important addition.
Dane Fletcher draws early visit. If you had Fletcher taking a free-agent visit (Tampa Bay) before fellow linebacker Brandon Spikes, you might consider buying a lottery ticket. That Fletcher has drawn such early interest likely punches his ticket out of town. Woodyard, if he’s signed, would immediately slide into that type of role and would represent an upgrade.
Isaac Sopoaga’s contract remains unchanged. While it seems unlikely that the Patriots will keep Sopoaga on the roster at a $3.5 million base salary, there has been no change in the veteran defensive tackle’s status. One possible reason: Until the Patriots have some clarity with Vince Wilfork’s contract situation (he’s scheduled to earn $7.5 million in base salary but the club might be looking for an adjustment of some kind), they might be more inclined to hold on to Sopoaga.
Of all the Patriots-related activity from free agency, the situation with the most layers to dissect was with Edelman. The door isn’t closed on his return, as the sides are keeping open dialogue, but it’s clear that whatever Edelman hoped would be there for him on the open market -- expectations fueled by the contract the Patriots handed out last offseason to Amendola -- hasn’t materialized at this point. The Baltimore Ravens reportedly have some interest, according to The Baltimore Sun, but it’s unclear at what level.
Edelman’s situation appears strikingly similar to the position that Welker found himself in last year, as Welker himself had to drum up interest with the Broncos and then ultimately come to grips with a contract that wasn’t as rich as what he had initially hoped for.
In the end, Welker found it easier to accept that type of contract from the Broncos than the team he felt he had given everything he had for six seasons. It stands to reason that Edelman might harbor some type of feelings along those lines as well, given that the Patriots invested big in Amendola last year, and not with him.
So the Patriots have some sensitive ground to navigate as they’d still like to retain Edelman. All told, that’s probably the biggest difference between Welker/2013 and Edelman/2014; there doesn’t seem to be as much urgency from the team to move on to Plan B this year, in part because it’s a buyer’s market for receivers.
Perhaps there will be a breakthrough on Wednesday.
As has often been the case with the Patriots, the activity usually picks up after the initial flurry of moves.
Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun first tweeted news of Costa's visit.
The visit with Costa highlights one aspect of the Patriots' behind-the-scenes free-agent approach as they have had discussions with some depth options along the interior of the offensive line. With starting center Ryan Wendell an unrestricted free agent, the Patriots are exploring some contingency plans.
The 26-year-old Costa started all 16 games in 2011, but has been limited to three games apiece in the 2012 and 2013 seasons because of back and ankle injuries. Similar to Wendell, Costa is on the smaller side for a center (6-foot-3, 302) and would likely project more to a backup role.
Costa was cut by the Cowboys late last week in a move to help the team get under the salary cap.
It now appears as if Spikes is officially ready to shut the door.
Earlier today, the colorful Spikes tweeted his official goodbye.
Jason La Canfora first tweeted news of Fletcher's visit.
Fletcher joined the Patriots as a rookie free agent in 2010, and first-year Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht was the Patriots' director of pro personnel that year.
Fletcher made the switch from college defensive end to NFL linebacker, and his primary contributions came on special teams in his four-year Patriots tenure. In 2013, he played 18 percent of the defensive snaps during the regular season; when starting linebacker Jerod Mayo was lost to a season-ending pectoral muscle on Oct. 13, he was tapped to lead the dime package.
The Patriots have plans to host Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard on a free-agent visit Wednesday. Woodyard would be a top candidate to fill Fletcher's void.
Edelman, who is coming off a career-high 105-catch campaign, enters his sixth NFL season in 2014. The Patriots would like him to return, and Edelman has expressed a desire to as well, but the sides haven't been able to find a middle ground on a contract.
As for the Patriots' possible contingency plan, one free agent to keep an eye on is Emmanuel Sanders. The Patriots signed him to a restricted free-agent offer sheet last year, but the Steelers matched it.
Sanders is an unrestricted free agent who can sign with any team as of 4 p.m. ET.
This marks the second straight season that Edelman will become an unrestricted free agent. This time around, however, the receiver has more leverage following a 105-catch season that included 1,056 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
Edelman re-signed with the Patriots last offseason, taking a one-year deal worth a shade over $1 million if he reached all incentives -- which he did. Only the Patriots and New York Giants pursued him last year, in part because of his injury history.
Edelman, who turns 28 on May 22, noted that the big difference for him in 2013 was being able to stay on the field.
"The main thing about this year was that I had four years under my belt and 'could I stay healthy?' I haven't been able to stay healthy for a whole year," Edelman told ESPN Radio's "SVP and Russillo" program in the week leading up to the Super Bowl. "I was able to stay healthy and then guys get hurt and you're given an opportunity."
Brandon Krisztal, a sports radio producer in Denver, first tweeted about the Patriots' interest in Woodyard.
Think sub defense.
The Patriots were in sub 67 percent of the time last season and that's where Woodyard -- who at 6-feet, 235 pounds would be a smaller 'backer for the Patriots' traditional scheme -- would likely project to help most.
The seven-year veteran was a weakside linebacker in the Broncos' 4-3 alignment when 2013 training camp opened before being moved to middle linebacker. A stinger sustained against the Cowboys on Oct. 6 knocked him out of the next two games and he was later replaced in the starting lineup.
Woodyard remained a part of Denver's sub packages. One of his greatest assets is speed, which would put him into the mix on special teams as well.
The Patriots look solid at the top of the linebacker depth chart with Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, so we didn't project an aggressive push at that position from the Patriots in free agency. The thought was that they'd focus more on linebackers who are more core special teamers (e.g. Dane Fletcher).
In Woodyard, who played under Josh McDaniels in 2009 and 2010 with the Broncos, it's possible the Patriots could address both areas -- a linebacker/captain with impact on defense and special teams.
1. Cornerback Darrelle Revis and the Patriots' potential interest.
2. Cornerback Aqib Talib, receiver Julian Edelman and the Patriots' hopes of retaining them.
3. Potential contingency plans for the Patriots if they lose Talib and Edelman.
4. Are the Patriots doing enough to put together a championship team?
5. Following up on the Patriots' decision to release seven lower-level players on Monday.
6. Vince Wilfork and the possibility of a reworked contract.
Would the Patriots, whose top need is at cornerback, be among the teams to go after Revis if he hits the market? ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter isn’t counting out that possibility:
Two teams to watch on CB Darrelle Revis once Tampa releases him: Philadelphia and New England (Jets fans shudder).— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 11, 2014
Revis is scheduled to make $16 million next season as part of a deal that would be voided if he is released by Tampa Bay. He would instantly be the best available defensive back on the market, so his price tag will still be high for teams looking to bid on his services.
It’s not like they don’t have options. They might prefer, for example, to re-sign incumbent cornerback Aqib Talib to a multi-year deal at a lesser price, which would mean they could spend more money elsewhere to fill another need.
Which direction would you like to see them go? Vote in the accompanying poll to have your say.