The New England Patriots have been extraordinarily busy bees this offseason with signings at almost every single position. With the news that defensive tackle Terrance Knighton is leaning towards signing with the Patriots, the team-building strategy of Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio has become extraordinarily clear:
The Patriots will sign a bunch of veterans that can contribute in 2016, but that can also be cut without much financial repercussion if a better player is available in the draft.
It's a pretty great strategy. As we've mentioned before, this approach gives the Patriots the freedom to select the best player available in the draft, instead of being handcuffed to any particular position like so many of their rivals.
Players like running back Donald Brown, wide receiver Nate Washington, tight end Clay Harbor, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, linebacker Ramon Humber, and cornerback E.J. Biggers are all camp bodies that can compete with whatever player the Patriots add to the roster. If they make the final roster, that's fine and they can be a valuable depth member of the 2016 squad.
Even more costly players fall into this category, like edge defender Chris Long- and let's put incumbent offensive tackle Marcus Cannon and wide receiver Danny Amendola into this group, too. While the team would take a financial hit with noticeable dead money if these players don't make the final roster, the Patriots wouldn't hesitate to cut these players if a better, younger player comes along.
Long's contract is weighted heavily with roster bonuses that would entice and allow the Patriots to move forward with a cheaper alternative if the talent is equal (disclosure: I think he makes the team). Cannon and Amendola come with hefty base salaries that need to be adjusted before either could be considered a roster lock.
New linebacker Shea McClellin and wide receiver Chris Hogan (and the acquired tight end Martellus Bennett) are the only signings that could be considered roster locks this offseason.
The Patriots still should try to improve the depth and future potential of a handful of positions- such as running back, wide receiver, offensive tackle, defensive tackle, and cornerback. But the veteran patchwork that has been signed buys the Patriots an additional year of time so the team can pick the best fit and best available players in the draft.
For example, if the team doesn't find a cornerback replacement for Logan Ryan, who looks like he'll receive a good deal on the open market, that's okay. The Patriots will have both Darryl Roberts and Justin Coleman in the system to develop for another season, while Biggers can provide the immediate veteran depth. And then next offseason, the Patriots will sign another veteran cornerback and test the draft again.
The free agency and draft approach prevents the Patriots from overreaching for draft prospects and also develops the team's immediate depth that is a key cornerstone of every Belichick team. When the draft comes by at the end of April, the Patriots will be flexible and can take whatever top prospect inexplicably falls into the second round.