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Curran: Can Patriots keep up in NFL's skill position arms race?

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Late in the 2001 season, when the Patriots were rolling in a season that would end with an unimaginable Super Bowl title, I stopped Bill Belichick as he was passing through the Foxboro Stadium locker room.

I was wondering about rookie defensive tackle Richard Seymour. Months earlier, with all of New England demanding a wide receiver weapon for Drew Bledsoe, Belichick instead plucked Seymour with the sixth overall pick.

There were howls of indignation.

“This is why he got fired in Cleveland and why he’ll get fired here. You don’t pay your quarterback $103M and then leave him throwing to Troy Brown when David Terrell is sitting right there! Koren Robinson, Rod Gardner, Santana Moss, Freddie Mitchell, Reggie Wayne – all go in the first round. But Bill’s smarter than everyone.”

By the time I snared Belichick, nobody was talking about David Terrell. They were talking about the Patriots and Seymour and the sixth-round pick who was playing quarterback with an efficiency Bledsoe never had.

How did Belichick know to steer clear of a wideout?

“Who’s the best rookie receiver right now?” Belichick asked.

I stammered.

“Chris Chambers in Miami,” Belichick said, answering his own question. “Second-round pick. You can get good receivers in a lot of ways. You can’t get a guy like Seymour anywhere.”

Over the past two decades, Belichick’s proven himself right. He’s gotten good and great receivers as distressed assets (Randy Moss), restricted free agents (Wes Welker), in the seventh round (David Givens and Julian Edelman), in the second round (Deion Branch), in free agency (Brandon Lloyd, Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola, Kendrick Bourne) as undrafted free agents (Jakobi Meyers) and in trades (Brandin Cooks).

 
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He's never wildly “overspent” on a wideout either initially or when it came to contract time. The closest he came with a player under his control was Welker on the franchise tag in 2012. Welker was gone the next year, replaced deftly by Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola.

Now, the case could be made Nelson Agholor was an overspend last offseason. His salary isn’t commensurate with the production but he’s operating on a two-year, $22M deal. But 29 wideouts currently have fatter deals. That paid him as a low-grade No. 1, not an elite. And there’s a trapdoor after this year.

And you could also argue N’Keal Harry was a big spend but the 32nd overall pick isn’t like a top-10 selection.

Basically, Belichick’s remained wedded to the wideout philosophy he articulated 21 years ago and those two only serve as evidence that you can get more at the position (Meyers, Bourne) in less expensive ways.

Bill will sign a superstar or a promising guy. If he can get him at a cut rate because they’re either at the end of the proverbial road -- Chad Ochocinco, Joey Galloway, Reggie Wayne and Torry Holt) or have driven off of it (Michael Floyd, Josh Gordon).

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But he’s not going top of the market at wideout. That’s not the Patriots way. Sorry, not sorry.

What makes this approach especially interesting today is seeing the man who ran Bill’s offense for 13 seasons -- including the past 10 -- push all of his chips to the middle of the table on the (arguably) best wideout in the league, Davante Adams. Very un-Patriotic.

McDaniels and former Patriots exec and current Raiders GM Dave Ziegler sent the 22nd and 53rd overall picks to Green Bay to secure the services of Adams and then gave him a five-year, $141.25M deal.

Can you say repressed? If McDaniels ever felt at times like he was going into a gun fight with a butter knife, he’s now purchased himself (insert whatever gaudy firearm you like here, I don’t know shit about that stuff).

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According to a source, the Raiders' mindset on dealing for Adams (and signing Chandler Jones and re-signing Maxx Crosby and chasing Stephon Gilmore) is simple. They "Want a chance to win. … You win with players."

 

Adding Adams for the price he did doesn’t make McDaniels "right." But it does serve as evidence that maybe there wasn’t high appeal in jerry-rigging an offense that would work with pieces like Phillip Dorsett, Cordarelle Patterson, Chris Hogan and Harry.

It’s also evidence he’s doing business as business is being done.

Since Tom Brady lit out for Tampa Bay, that’s become the prevailing -- and most successful -- approach around the league. That -- while the system, culture and economics are always important -- talent wins. It won for KC in 2019. It won for Tampa in 2020. It won for the Rams in 2021.

A whole lot of teams are crossing against a "DON’T WALK" sign when it comes to the salary cap. And they aren’t getting run over.

Meanwhile, those of us who scoffed at "cap is crap" nonsense because of the Patriots’ success with having a strong middle class and the greatest player in the game playing for middle class pay are looking up at Bill and wondering if he’s going to cross too or just stare at the signal with his teeth clenched.

Whether the Adams trade truly works or not remains to be seen. But when you glance around the league and see how the Patriots' main competitor in the AFC East, the Buffalo Bills, extended themselves for Stefon Diggs and that the AFC Championship Game contestants this year -- Kansas City and Cincy -- are chockful of first-round picks that worked and big-ticket targets, you have to realize the mindset and success rate has changed.

At this point, you may want to protest and say, "Hey. Didn’t they add two wide receivers and two tight ends in free agency last year who have a COMBINED cap hit of almost $50M this year?" You are correct. The Patriots -- after not doing anything at all at tight end during the waning Brady years and very little at wideout -- did pay for the purportedly better-than-average Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.

Bill Belichick can either begin to do business as business is being done and spend through the nose for high-end skill position talent on offense like everybody else. Or he can keep trying to capitalize on market inefficiencies while hoping great players come to the Patriots because of who they were and might be rather than who they are.

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But they did so with all the willingness of someone getting shoved in a cold pool. They did it because they literally had no decent players at those positions. And even though those contracts are pretty lucrative, they all (thankfully in the case of Smith and Agholor) have trapdoors the team can exploit.

Let’s bring it all back full circle.

Richard Seymour’s going to the Hall of Fame. Bill was right. And Tom Brady won six Super Bowls here. Bill was right. But it’s not 2001 anymore. The game’s radically changed. So has the team since there’s no Tom Brady or Richard Seymour not to mention Ty Law, Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown or Mike Vrabel.

Bill Belichick can either begin to do business as business is being done and spend through the nose for high-end skill position talent on offense like everybody else. Or he can keep trying to capitalize on market inefficiencies while hoping great players come to the Patriots because of who they were and might be rather than who they are.

 

Now THAT’S a bold strategy.