The New England Patriots have reached the AFC Championship game in five consecutive seasons and a strong free agency period would go a long way towards reaching an NFL record six-straight. The Patriots have done a good job of managing both top tier ability and quality depth in recent years.
The "legal tampering period" starts on Monday, March 7th at 4:00 PM EST and stretches the next 48 hours. Teams are allowed to contact unrestricted free agents of other teams over this time frame, but they are *wink wink nudge nudge* not allowed to sign a contract until the official start to free agency.
NFL free agency kicks off next Wednesday, March 9th at 4:00 PM EST and that's when teams are officially allowed to sign the deals laid out during the legal tampering period.
The Patriots are one of the best teams at maneuvering the March free agency period, but it's important to note that team-building doesn't end once the calendar turns to April. Some of the team's best signings over the past five seasons have come later in the offseason.
2011 is a perfect example of delayed team building. Defensive end Andre Carter signed in August and was one of the best pick-ups of the year. Fellow pass rusher Mark Anderson also signed in August and notched 10 sacks on the year. Right guard Brian Waters didn't sign until September 4th, and he started every game and was nominated to a Pro Bowl. Back-up guard Donald Thomas signed in mid-September 2011 after an injury to center Dan Koppen and ended up starting 8 games over the next two seasons.
But if we turn our focus to the Patriots activity in March, we can find how the team finds success in different places- and how Bill Belichick supplements some disappointing draft picks with some proven veterans.
8. WR Brandon Lloyd, 2012
Signed a 3-year, $12 million contract. While he only stuck around for one season, Lloyd made it count with a 74-catch, 911 yard, 4 touchdown season over 15 starts in 2012. He was released from the team prior to a disastrous 2013 offseason, but he was one example of the Patriots trying to overcome the weak development of drafted receivers with a proven veteran. Lloyd previously played under Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and we have seen the Patriots bring in other McDaniels experiments over the years.
7. S Steve Gregory, 2012
Signed a 3-year, $7 million contract. Gregory won't receive the same acclaim as some other free agents, but his bargain-bin contract and 23 starts over two seasons make him one of the more successful signings. Patriots safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon also attribute some aspect of their NFL education to Gregory's teaching ability in the film room. Oh, and he scored on the Butt Fumble.
6. CB Brandon Browner, 2014
Signed a 3-year, $17 million contract, with a team-option for the 2nd and 3rd seasons. Even though he only played 12 games in a Patriots uniform, Browner was just as responsible for the game-saving interception at the end of Super Bowl XLIX as cornerback Malcolm Butler. That alone puts Browner on the list, but his hard-nosed attitude seems to have rubbed off on the rest of the defense, even after he left the team. The Patriots decided not to pick up his contract option.
5. WR Danny Amendola, 2013
Signed a 5-year, $28.5 million contract. Amendola is entering his 4th season in a Patriots uniform. He hasn't lived up the expectations as a replacement for Wes Welker, but the Patriots also wouldn't have won Super Bowl XLIX without his contributions during the playoff run. It's possible that Amendola is cut loose this offseason, but the 600-700 receiving yard range seems to be his ceiling. He's been a solid #3 and #4 option in the Patriots offense.
4. WR Brandon LaFell, 2014
Signed a 3-year, $9 million contract. LaFell was another crucial component of the team's run during for Super Bowl XLIX and caught what was possibly Tom Brady's greatest pass of all time.
LaFell has collected 127 receptions for 1,593 yards and 9 touchdowns over his two years in a Patriots uniform, which compares well to Amendola's 167 receptions for 1,752 yards and 9 touchdowns over three seasons, especially when you compare the price tags.
3. DE Jabaal Sheard, 2015
Signed a 2-year, $11 million contract. Sheard acted as the third defensive end this past season in a rotation with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, but don't get confused- Sheard was the best of the trio. He was a dominant run stuffer and was even better against the pass. He should be a top priority for New England to retain for the long haul.
2. CB Darrelle Revis, 2014
Signed a 2-year, $32 million contract, with a team-option for the 2nd season. Revis collected an All Pro nod and a Super Bowl title in his one year with the Patriots. It's pretty difficult to top this one-year free agency rental as Revis is also going to net the Patriots a 3rd round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. He's the gift that keeps on giving. The Patriots declined to pick up his option and the two sides couldn't agree to an extension.
1. S Patrick Chung, 2014
Signed a 1-year, $1.1 million contract, and a subsequent 3-year, $8.2 million contract. Technically the only player on this list to have fully finished his free agency contract, although Amendola and Sheard still have a shot. Chung has not only been a bargain, but he has improved in his two years with the Patriots. His ability as a slot corner and as a fantastic run defender allows the defense to deploy some pretty unique schemes. He and Devin McCourty create one of the best safety tandems in the entire league.
The Patriots have really used free agency to bolster the secondary and the wide receiver position- the two that are regarded as Bill Belichick's blind spot in the draft. Don't be surprised to see the Patriots bring in yet another wide receiver this free agency period.