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MMQB: That time Bill Belichick called in from a beach to tear up a free agent contract

Belichick is the master of navigating free agency.

MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas took a deep dive into how the New England Patriots approach free agency and shares a story of how head coach Bill Belichick nixed a free agent contract from the beach.

With free agency set to start this afternoon at 4:00 PM EST, it’s important to recognize how the Patriots prioritize free agents and the value they bestow on each player.

Vrentas share a story of how Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio struck a “multi-year deal” with a veteran free agent and reached a point where the player “got fitted for a helmet” and “picked out a locker”- events that take place pretty deep into the signing process.

Before putting pen to paper, Belichick phoned in from “a warm beachside destination with some bad news,” according to Vrenta.

“‘I can’t do this deal,’ [Belichick] said to the agent,” Vrentas writes. “What? Why? Belichick couldn’t sign off on the terms the agent and Caserio had discussed. Of issue, Belichick explained, was the final year of the deal. Based on what the player’s age would be in that last year, and the position he plays, Belichick expected that he would be declining out of a starting role by that point. Plus, he figured they’d have drafted a replacement who’d be ready to replace the veteran player by then. By that logic, the salary figure in the final year of was simply too high to work for the Patriots.

“The player could head home and go back on the open market, Belichick suggested. The other option was to re-open negotiations, and carve out a seven-figure chunk of money out of the back end of the deal. And that’s exactly what happened. The player signed for the reduced terms, and guess what? He started exactly the number of years Belichick guessed he would, and no more.”

My first instinct was to try and figure out what player Vrentas is discussing. We know he was a veteran with special teams ability that signed a multi-year deal, competed for and won a starting job, and that Belichick called his shot and the player is no longer starting for the team.

The only player that fit that description, in my mind, is safety Steve Gregory. I can not verify this is the player of note, but no other player signed an initial multi-year deal as a veteran, played on special teams, and won a starting job.

I’m curious to see if anyone can think of another player that matches the description. Let me know in the comments.

Gregory signed a 3-year, $7.05 million deal with the Patriots in 2012 and earned a starting job at safety alongside Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty. The Patriots also drafted Tavon Wilson in the second round of the 2012 draft, and Belichick clearly hoped he would be able to replace Gregory sooner rather than later.

Gregory continued to start next to Devin McCourty in 2013 and the Patriots invested another early draft pick in Duron Harmon and signed veteran Adrian Wilson. Wilson never saw the field, but Harmon emerged as a contributor and McCourty developed into a star, so Belichick made the decision to move on from Gregory before the 2014 season.

Gregory was a solid defensive back that McCourty credits with helping in his development into an All Pro, but Belichick did not believe that he was worth the $2.85 million he was projected to earn in 2014. After releasing Gregory, the Patriots signed Patrick Chung to a one-year, $1.1 million deal before the 2014 season to compete with Tavon Wilson, and the rest is history.

This is the core of the Patriots team building, too. Is Gregory at $2.85 million worth more than Chung at $1.1 million? Is TE Martellus Bennett at $9.0 million better value that TE Dwayne Allen at $5.8 million?

Former Patriots director of pro personnel and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers Jason Licht described the process to Vrentas.

“The difference in a player that’s making ‘X’ amount of dollars (higher) to making this much (lower), what’s the difference in his talent level?,” Licht explained. “The Patriots do a great job of saying, The difference in money doesn’t make sense to pay for this difference in talent.”

Was Gregory $1.75 million better than Chung back in 2014? Definitely not in retrospect and probably not at the time. Is Texans DT Vince Wilfork ($4.5 million per year) worth twice as much as Patriots DT Alan Branch ($2.15 million per year). Is Falcons WR Mohamed Sanu ($6.5 million per year) worth $2.5 million more than Patriots WR Chris Hogan ($4.0 million per year).

Sometimes players are worth the money, and that’s when the Patriots pony up record-setting contracts to the likes of McCourty and Rob Gronkowski and Stephen Gostkowski and Tom Brady. Dont’a Hightower will probably find himself in this category.

But Belichick is the master at determining a player’s value above replacement- and he’s usually right.