FOXBORO - There aren't many players inside the Patriots locker room who will be new to the postseason experience this weekend. But the do-or-die nature of the playoffs is completely foreign feeling for a few key first-year contributors, such as Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore.
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That those players are finally getting a taste of football in mid-January is thanks in part to an evolving offseason approach in New England that saw the Patriots slot in as one of the NFL's top offseason spenders in 2017.
The Ringer's Kevin Clark put together a fascinating piece on free-agent spending this week, pointing out which teams dealt out the most cash, why, and how they fared. The Patriots ended up as one of the top 10 spenders in free-agency, and they were one of six top 10 spenders that made the playoffs.
Six of the top ten spenders in free agency made the playoffs. The NFL's new salary cap reality happened so gradually you may not have noticed the game changed: https://t.co/ncYugco7hm— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) January 9, 2018
It's a staggering number considering that free agency has long been viewed as an often-foolhardy last resort for NFL teams desperate to turn things around. But in recent years, organizations have had much more salary-cap space to play with, which has allowed front offices to be more aggressive. Those who have shown a willingness to spend have been rewarded as they've separated themselves from teams who've clung to the idea that thriftiness is key.
Where's the cap space coming from? The cap has ballooned from $120 million to $167 million in the past six years. Plus the 2011 collective bargaining agreement made two changes that have had an impact: 1) It reined in rookie contracts and 2) it allowed teams to roll over unused cap space from one year to the next.
The Patriots have long held a reputation as a team that prefers develop from within, as their list of long-term, high-priced, free-agent deals would indicate, with the 2007 addition of Adalius Thomas coming in as one of the few outliers in Bill Belichick's tenure.
While the arrival of 2017 heralded a different approach, one doesn't need to go back all that far to find an example of the Patriots largely staying on the sidelines in free agency. Even though they came in as the No. 9 free-agent spenders in 2016, the vast majority of their money spent was a result of Tom Brady's contract extension. Without it, they would have placed among the NFL's bottom-third spenders, just a few spots ahead of the perennially free-agent averse Packers. (After shuffling their front office this offseason, even Green Bay has made a commitment to being more aggressive in the free-agent market, as bold an indication as any that teams are changing their stance on spending.)
Then last offseason, the Patriots went on a shopping spree. They made Gilmore one of the highest-paid corners in the league. They went out and signed largely unheralded defensive tackle Lawrence Guy to a four-year deal. They invested (in the short term) at the running back position by grabbing unrestricted free agent Rex Burkhead and restricted free agent Mike Gillislee. They re-signed Duron Harmon and Dont'a Hightower. And they were willing to trade an opportunity to draft cost-effective rookies in order to acquire Cooks, and Dwayne Allen, both of whom would cost more against the cap in the short-term.
One could argue the effectiveness of their method, but not that it had a decidedly different look than the norm for them.
Will it continue into 2018? Will the Patriots have the money to add another playoff-starved free agent with a top-of-the-market deal?
They don't have much in the way of 2017 cap space to roll over next season (about $3 million), but the cap is expected to go up again. Over the Cap has projected it to land somewhere in the range of $178 million and for the Patriots to have around $17 million in cap space. Unless something changes, that's hardly a king's ransom that the Patriots will have available to them to spread around in March.
But what the Patriots did last offseason -- shelling out for immediate help at expensive positions -- showed that when they have the ability to spend they're willing to do it. And in a league with a cap that's increasing annually, where it seems as safe to gamble on outside help as it's ever been, a prodigal approach isn't necessarily a bad one. Based on recent evidence, at least, fortune has favored the bold.