Back in the glory days of Grantland, football encyclopedia Bill Barnwell offered an all-time best explanation of how the Patriots and Bill Belichick approach free agency when everyone else is in full-blown "Shut up and take my money!" mode:
"The Patriots mostly stay out of free agency, choosing to make selective forays for undervalued assets (like Brandon LaFell) or talents at the top of the market they would otherwise be unable to acquire (like Rosevelt Colvin and Adalius Thomas in years past)."
Out of those two types of acquisitions, today we're here for the latter - a top-of-the-market talent (don't use the "E" word!) that just may be hitting the free agent market at the same time New England happens to be stacked with over $60 million in cap space for 2017, as of today.
And, ironically, a former New England Patriot may be the reason that star defensive end Calais Campbell won't be staying in Arizona, where he's spent his entire career since getting drafted in the second round in 2008.
I'm referring, of course, to the Cardinals' other stud pass-rusher, Chandler Jones, who chalked up 11 sacks, 38 tackles, and 2 fumble recoveries in 2016. Arizona has been pretty clear about their heart-eyes-emoji love for Jones, with coach Bruce Arians and GM Michael Bidwell basically saying there isn't a snowballs chance that Chandler ever even gets close to free agency:
Arians: "Chandler's not going anywhere because if we have to, we will franchise him."
Bidwell: "We're not going to mess around with that. He's a great pass-rusher, but if we can't agree to terms that work for us, we're just going to franchise him. His people know that."
That pretty much means Calais Campbell could be the odd man out, because the Cards aren't exactly flush with cap space. Assuming that they do franchise Jones, they'll have roughly $18.5 million in cap room, and given what pass-rushers are making these days, Campbell's likely going to be too expensive for Arizona to keep.
All right, let's get to the good stuff already: if Calais Campbell does hit the open market, what could he bring to the Patriots?
For starters, Campbell is built much more like a traditional defensive end than some of the other pass-rushers (or, as the cool kids call them, edge defenders) on New England's current roster. He's 6'8'' and weighs in at an even 300 lbs, and defensive ends like that may bring back happy memories of when the Patriots were running a 3-4 defense and lining up Richard Seymour at defensive end.
(For comparison purposes, Trey Flowers, who looks to be developing nicely as a defensive end, is 6'2'' and 265 lbs.)
The only "Yeah, BUT" with that is that New England's defensive scheme these days seems to have shifted more to a four-man front, with two defensive tackles and then a couple "smaller" defensive ends like Flowers or Chris Long manning the edges, or linebackers like Kyle Van Noy, Dont'a Hightower, or Rob Ninkovich, who really blurs the line between end and linebacker most of the time. So scheme fit may not exactly be a slam dunk.
The Patriots' glaring lack of pass-rush pressure this season was THE storyline for most of the year, especially with guys like Jabaal Sheard taking noticeable steps backwards from 2015, and that's part of what makes Campbell so appealing - consistency.
I mean, look at this stuff:
That's about as rock-solid as it gets.
He also posted a BAMF grade on Pro Football Focus and made #2 on their "Top 10 Interior Defenders Set to Hit Free Agency" list:
"While he earned himself a better season than (Kawann) Short, Campbell's age is what knocks him to No.2 on this list. Both players will earn themselves sizeable contracts and most likely produce at near elite levels, but Short is entering the prime of his career while Campbell is in the middle of his. Campbell's past two years is just a step below what Short posted - 15 sacks, 28 hits and 74 defensive stops - but the leap in efficiency that Campbell made rushing the passer is noteworthy as he improved his pass-rushing productivity from 7.2 to 9.2. Arizona would be wise to re-sign the former Miami Hurricane, but he will demand top dollar."
Put another way, even though Campbell turned 30 last fall and will be hitting 31 years old right as the 2017 season starts, he's still bringing it, same as he always has.
The age thing also comes up because Bill Belichick's never hesitated to pull the trigger on older defensive players in hopes that their talents and experience will pay big dividends for the Patriots. You know all the big ones - Rodney Harrison, Junior Seau, Adalius Thomas, Chris Long, yada yada - and you also remember a few that blew up in his face, like Albert Haynesworth, who didn't even make it a whole season before Bill was like "Yeah, we're done here."
Back to Calais Campbell: he ain't going to be be cheap. This is where that whole "spending to get talent they wouldn't be able to acquire otherwise" part comes full circle - if we go by Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett's new extension this year, which he also got at age 31, here's what it would look like. Avert your eyes if you're already thinking this will cost way too much:
And that's a team negotiating an extension with a player already under contract, not one who has what I'm assuming will be pretty much every team in the league that isn't cap-screwed bidding on his services.
So we're most likely talking 2, 3, or 4 years, and somewhere north of $12 million a year, with maybe two-thirds of that guaranteed.
This honestly feels like one of those situations where Campbell is going to get a whole lot richer as soon as free agency opens, and I'd bet the rent that it won't be the Patriots cutting the check. It's not crazy to suggest that Calais is worth that much, because pass-rushing defensive ends this good are a gift from the football gods, it's just that a contract like that would not only make him one of the highest-paid guys on the team right off the bat, and it could throw a real wrench in the Patriots re-signing homegrown talent like Dont'a Hightower and Malcolm Butler, which you'd have to think are higher priority than free agents, no matter how good they are.
What do you guys think? Is Calais Campbell worth the dough?