FOXBORO – We’ve mentioned – a few thousand times – that the Patriots have a fleet of key free agents up at the end of the 2016 season.
There’s Jamie Collins, Donta Hightower, Jabaal Sheard, Duron Harmon, Martellus Bennett and Logan Ryan. Malcolm Butler, meanwhile, will be a restricted free agent. How does the team maintain its laser-focus on the games of 2016 while knowing that – if these business decisions aren’t addressed – the games of 2017 could look starkly different.
I asked Bill Belichick Friday morning about stealing a glance at the business side of things and planning for the future while the season’s ongoing.
“In general there’s some team planning you can do,” Belichick said after noting the team’s immediate focus is currently on Sunday’s game with the Bills. “Sometimes, if you can work out a contract with a player during the season – we’ve done that with various players – if you can work it out, you work it out. If you can’t, then there’ve been a number of players that we’ve signed – our players – that we signed once free agency has started. Devin [McCourty] to pick a name.
“I don’t think you can be afraid of free agency,” Belichick continued. “It’s not like if a guy gets to free agency you can’t re-sign him. You’re in a competitive market but, you know, you’re in a competitive market anyway.”
There are things that occur now, that could occur this weekend that can drastically impact every plan laid. It’s my impression that the Patriots are slow-playing this free agent class. Waving lucrative extensions in front of players before knowing how they’ll make it through this season and before knowing what their appeal will be on the open market is short-term satisfaction.
It will satisfy the players who want the security and it will squelch hand-wringing that EVERYBODY’S GOING TO LEAVE in the media.
Long-term, it’s risky.
Consider Donta Hightower. He’s got a knee issue that’s kept him down two games. He played three-quarters of the year in 2014 and 2015 and this year isn’t trending better. He brings absolutely everything the Patriots want in a player except the durability. The onus is on them to factor that into any contract offer they extend. Meanwhile, the onus is on Hightower to – if he isn’t getting what he and his agent feel he can command – to find out if another team will give him different terms if the Patriots’ aren’t suitable.
As Belichick pointed out, “These guys know that they have other options depending on who the player is and what the situation is. They have other options but we know there’s only so much money to go around. If you can work it out, then you have that security. If you can’t then you have your options. They have their options, we have our options. That’s professional sports. I don’t think that’s anything revolutionary. I don’t think it’s different than any other pro football team or any other pro team. You see the same in all the other sports.”
In general, the Patriots have shrewd free agent operators. Pulling the ripcord on Darrelle Revis and Wes Welker were two of the tougher calls made in recent years. Both decisions caused howling from the fanbase and predictions of doom from the media. Both were prescient decisions.
Teams splinter when the seasons end. And the second-guessing about the business decisions is inevitable.
“It’s been that way … since we had free agency,” he said. “That’s what it is. That’s the way it is in all sports. Basketball season’s over, you’re talking about a few guys going here, going there, staying with their team, whatever. You’re not gonna be able to get around that. Even if we were to sign a couple of those guys or whatever that is, there’s gonna be a couple of guys that aren’t so you can talk about those. Same thing we come in here Monday after every game. Somebody had production [but media asks], ‘But what about these guys this guy didn’t catch that many passes, this guy didn’t get that many carries.’ There’s always those guys to ask about. There’s no simple answer to it.”
This season, the questions seem even more challenging.