It's happened time and again. The Patriots identify a player who has established himself as one of the game's best elsewhere, a player who has become available for one reason or another — often it's a combination of the player no longer being in his prime and his relationship with his employer having eroded — and they mobilize.
It happened last year with Josh Gordon. Two years ago it was James Harrison who showed up in Foxboro after a beef with the Steelers. In 2016, the Patriots landed Martellus Bennett in a low-cost trade with the Bears.
You don't have to be Bill Belichick to discern the value in these moves. The price tags are relatively cheap, and the dividends can be huge if the players re-discover what made them great once they join a new program, under a coach looking to accentuate their skills, with a quarterback who will squeeze what he can out of what's around him.
These players haven't necessarily been acquired with the long-term in mind. But just because their Patriots tenures were short doesn't mean they weren't hugely impactful. Some that have re-written record books. Some that have resulted in the franchise adding to its stack of Lombardis.
In today's Great Patriots Debate, we'll focus in on the most impactful superstar cameos in Patriots history: Between Corey Dillon, Randy Moss and Darrelle Revis, which acquisition should be considered the best of the best?
Dillon was a punishing runner who made an immediate impact in his first year with Cincinnati, breaking Jim Brown's single-game rushing record for a rookie (246 yards on 39 carries, four touchdowns), and totaling 1,129 yards in the 1997 season. He set the single-game rushing record (278 yards) in 2000, surpassing Walter Payton's mark. He made three consecutive Pro Bowls from 1999-2001.
In 2003, Dillon was banged up. He started in 11 games after having started all but two regular-season games in the previous five years, and he finished with just 541 yards. (Dillon was declared inactive for one game following a traffic accident.) He wasn't shy about sharing his feelings on his usage, and he openly lobbied for a trade after the season.
Dillon landed in New England in the spring of 2004 for the cost of a second-round pick — the steepest price of any of the three players featured here — and quickly turned around what was the NFL's No. 27 rushing attack in its Super Bowl-winning season the year prior. He ran for a career-high 1,635 yards (on a whopping 4.7 yards per carry), averaging over 100 yards per game, scored 12 times and made his fourth Pro Bowl. That postseason, en route to the team's third title in four years, he ran 65 times for 292 yards in three games, including a 144-yard performance against the Colts in the Divisional Round.
The following two years saw Dillon deal with injuries as he ran for just over 1,500 yards combined in 2005 and 2006. As he saw his role diminished, he wasn't thrilled. (Check out Tom E. Curran's write-up on Dillon in his Top 50 Patriots of the Belichick Era series for an amusing anecdote involving Heath Evans.) But his one year of dynamite production keeps him in the conversation as one of the best trade acquisitions Belichick ever made.
As bright as Dillon's skills burned in 2004, Moss' return to form — ignited by his pairing with a Hall-of-Fame level passer — was even more dramatic.
In 2007, the Patriots were coming off a season when they fell one game short of a Super Bowl appearance due in part to their lackluster receiving corps. They overhauled the entire room, adding Wes Welker and Donté Stallworth as well as going after Moss. Having established himself as one of the greatest talents to ever step on a field as a member of the Vikings earlier in his career, Moss hit a low with the Raiders, finishing 2006 with 42 catches, 553 yards and three scores.
Going into his 30-year-old season, he was available. The Patriots offered up a fourth-rounder, and the deal was done.
Moss responded with one of the best seasons a wideout has ever had: 98 catches for 1,493 yards and a single-season record 23 touchdowns. He almost single-handedly turned around the commonly-held perception on Brady. The quarterback was now more "game-changer" than "game-manager" as he finished that season with a record 50 touchdown passes.
Though Moss didn't win a ring with the Patriots, he was one of the drivers of their perfect regular season and he caught the go-ahead touchdown with less than three minutes remaining in Super Bowl XLII. He maintained an upper-tier level of play the following season with Matt Cassel behind center, grabbing 69 passes for 1,008 yards and 11 scores for a team that narrowly missed the postseason.
In 2009, Moss continued to rack up numbers — he had 83 catches for 1,264 yards and 13 touchdowns in Brady's return from injury — but he didn't love the contract he'd signed the year prior, and in 2010 he complained openly about not being appreciated. He was traded mid-season to the Vikings.
This was a true cameo. One season. Wham. Bam. Super Bowl. Thank you, man.
The Patriots had just lost No. 1 corner Aqib Talib to the Broncos in free agency when Tampa Bay released Revis prior to the 2014 season. The Bucs, who'd just hired former Patriot executive Jason Licht to be their general manager, tried to trade Revis and his $16 million salary but couldn't. Their loss was New England's gain.
Revis agreed to a one-year, $12 million deal with the Patriots, which included a placeholder $20 million option for a second year that helped the Patriots spread Revis' cap hit. It didn't take long before the cover man going into his 29-year-old season showed he still deserved to be in the conversation as the game's top corner.
The Patriots (who also added press corner Brandon Browner that offseason) were allowed to play a more physical, man-heavy style of defense thanks to Revis' addition. He helped lock up players like Greg Jennings, A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall, Reggie Wayne, Golden Tate and Keenan Allen in the regular season. In Super Bowl XLIX, he held Doug Baldwin to one catch — a three-yard touchdown aided by a referee's pick. The following offseason, Revis hit free agency again and signed a monster deal to return to the Jets.
His time in New England lasted only a year, but it was a Super Bowl-winning year, and he was Belichick's best defensive player. When we're talking superstar Patriots cameos, there's an argument to be made that he's the best there's ever been.
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