Ramon Humber. Remember him? That was the lone, out-of-the-gates signing the Patriots made when free agency opened on March 9.
I had never heard of him. You likely hadn’t either.
It was a very Patriotic start to free agency. While the rest of the league was slapping down heavy bets on better-known players, the Patriots were lurking in the fringes of the table, waiting for a seat to open and the minimum to drop.
They dabbled, kicking the tires on receivers Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Rishard Matthews. But the seven guys they brought to town for a visit were less sexy: running backs Benny Cunningham and James Starks; receivers Chris Hogan and Rod Streater; tight end Clay Harbor; defensive end Frank Kearse; and defensive back Sherrick McManis.
They signed Kearse, a former seventh-rounder. They got Hogan, an undrafted wideout and the fourth option in Buffalo, to agree to an offer sheet that the Bills declined to match. But compared to the rest of the league, the investment firm of Belichick and Caserio kept playing the waiting game. Streater signed with the Chiefs. Akiem Hicks left for the Bears. Sanu, Matthews and Jones – regarded as the top three wideouts – were all long gone.
Then, a week into free agency, the Patriots dove in with a move that wasn’t even tied (directly) to free agency, trading Chandler Jones to the Cardinals in exchange for a second-round pick and guard Jonathan Cooper.
That opened the floodgates to a flurry of signings: linebacker Shea McClellin, defensive lineman Chris Long and running back Donald Brown.
In a 24-hour span, four former first-round picks were added.
Then they made a deal for the most athletic tight end in the league not named Rob Gronkowski by picking up Martellus Bennett.
In the next couple of days, the Patriots talked to another former first-rounder Nick Fairley. When he signed elsewhere, the Patriots moved on to Terrance Knighton. They hauled in the aging field-stretcher Nate Washington. They also brought aboard E.J. Biggers and, reportedly, the tight end Harbor. They are doing their research on wideout Mike Williams.
So, after a slow start, the Patriots have been a hit with signings that can be reduced for us laypersons to: “Hey! There’s a guy I know!”
It’s not the greatest measure of a pickup’s potential impact – the Patriots discard pile is stacked high with Names We Knew like Haynesworth, Galloway, Ochocinco, Holt, Wayne, etc – but the fact that so many of these players had the physical tools to be first-round picks shouldn’t be dismissed.
Nor should it be overlooked that this influx of players will significantly alter the chemistry of the 2016 Patriots.
For better or worse? Nobody knows. The team hasn’t even convened as a whole yet. But it will be different. It always is, even if there isn’t turnover.
There are going to be interesting dynamics to watch, though, because the Patriots’ “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” approach is not always in alignment with players who can be, have been or want to be individually great.
The sell job – as always – is convincing players there is greater reward in being part of something bigger than themselves than there is in rolling up numbers that will make them the targets of those heavy-betting teams.
Take the tight end position, for instance. The landscape is fascinating. There’s Rob Gronkowski, best tight end in the game, a future Hall of Famer who has intimated in the past month that he’s underpaid but isn’t fazed by that fact. Now there’s Bennett, a player who – based on an insightful piece from Chicago Magazine – has regarded Gronk as a rival.
“I’m a tight end consultant,” Bennett said in the piece. “We’re all products. I’ve got to come back every year as a better product. You know, like the iPhone 7.”
Right now, if any tight end in the league is an iPhone 7, it’s Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots. Bennett is more of a Samsung Galaxy. When Gronkowski racked up 149 yards and three touchdowns against the Bears in a game last season, Bennett took it as a personal affront. How am I going to outplay this maniac? He’s rarely mentioned alongside Gronk or even Jimmy Graham, the new Seahawks tight end, a fact that obviously rankles him. Behind the goofy swagger, Bennett desperately wants to be acknowledged for his talents on the field.
Bennett is in the final year of his deal and is making just over $5M in salary. What drives him? Stat compilation that enhances his marketability in 2017? Or, being a part of a marquee team where ego is checked and stats can be modest but the reward for championships can be big money elsewhere and personal satisfaction?
Meanwhile, Harbor – another set of tight end hands (albeit in on a smaller person) – wades into the group there as well.
Harbor, it should be noted, falls into the category of “guy who played well against New England that later got signed.” Wes Welker is the gold standard for that. Scott Chandler is the tin standard.
Nate Washington fits that profile to a degree – he had a big catch for Houston last season against the Patriots. McClellin fits another profile – the would-be draft target that the Patriots eventually land.
A first-rounder in 2012 that many felt had Patriot-level versatility, McClellin never found a positional home in Chicago. Now he’s in the linebacker mix with a fairly modest, three-year deal in hand ($9M with $3M guaranteed), but the knowledge that neither of the Patriots more accomplished linebackers – Donta Hightower and Jamie Collins – have gotten new deals to lock them up. It takes a level of patience and maturity to play well under the business pressure that Hightower and Collins will face if they enter 2016 as would-be free agents.
There’s no sense pretending personal finances are not a major part of professional football. Especially when the physical toll can be so profound and the peak-earning years are so compressed. Especially in a period where pedestrian players are signing $50M contracts. It’s incumbent on players to do what’s best for them and only they know what is best.
Teammates respect that everyone has to manage his own business. It wouldn’t fall to Chris Long to counsel Collins, Hightower or Jabaal Sheard on being patient, and I doubt that he would. Long knows he’s already earned in excess of $80M in the game, he’d wholly support those players making theirs. The same would go for everyone on the team when it comes to Malcolm Butler, who’s making $600,000 this year.
The Patriots’ rash of high-profile acquisitions coupled with the valuable players they have reaching contract crossroads and the always-bright lights shining on a franchise for whom success is not a choice promise to make this season one of the most fascinating of the Belichick-Brady era.