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Sunday NFL Thoughts: A history of the Patriots signing older veterans like David Harris

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Also, how James White earned the nickname “Sweet Feet.”

1. I really like the New England Patriots’ addition of LB David Harris into the fold. He’s been an outstanding leader his entire career, he’s been a very solid player, he’s rarely missed time, and he’s a very well-rounded complement to Dont’a Hightower. Where Kyle Van Noy might struggle against the run, or Elandon Roberts might struggle against the pass, Harris puts together a complete game and won’t need to come off the field.

The 33-year-old Harris reminds me of a few other defenders that Bill Belichick has added to the Patriots over the years.

  • CB Otis Smith (2000-02). Signed at age 34, started 42 games over his three seasons.
  • LB Roman Phifer (2001-04). Signed at age 33, started 45 games over the first three of his four seasons.
  • DL Anthony Pleasant (2001-03). Signed at age 33, started 27 games over the first two of his three seasons.
  • SS Rodney Harrison (2003-08). Signed at age 31, started 62 games over his six seasons.
  • CB Tyrone Poole (2003-05). Signed at age 31, started 20 games over the first two of his three seasons.
  • DL Ted Washington (2003). Signed at age 35, started 10 games in his one season.
  • LB Junior Seau (2006-09). Signed at age 37, started 14 games over the first two of his four seasons.
  • EDGE Andre Carter (2011). Signed at age 32, started 14 games in his one season.
  • EDGE Chris Long (2016). Signed at age 31, started 7 games in his one season.

These were all players that came to the Patriots with a defined role in mind, but with the understanding that they might have lost a step compared to their early career abilities. I think Harris can fit in nicely as the veteran that can still contribute and might be better finishing his career as the number two option instead of the centerpiece.

2. You’ll also note that the majority of those signings took place at the start of Belichick’s tenure with the Patriots. Part of that relates to Belichick churning the entire roster that he took over by adding veterans that could bring leadership to the team; once Belichick’s scouting and drafting system was in place, he didn’t need to add any more aged band-aids. He had the players he wanted in his system.

Over the past decade (2007-onward), the Patriots have actually had a pretty horrible time adding older defenders to the team. Other than Carter and Long, the 31+ year olds that have made the team and contributed have are:

  • LB Chad Brown (2005, 2007). Signed at age 35 and again at age 37, Brown started 5 of 17 games.
  • CB Deltha O’Neal (2008). Signed at age 31, O’Neal started 10 of 16 games before losing his job to Jonathan Wilhite.
  • EDGE Derrick Burgess (2009). The Patriots shipped 2010 third and fifth round picks to the Oakland Raiders for the 31-year-old Burgess. Burgess started 6 of 16 games and racked up 5 sacks. He was not on the team in 2010.
  • CB Shawn Springs (2009). Signed at age 34 to a three-year deal, Springs started 8 games, missed a chunk of time with a knee injury, and was released after one season.
  • DL Gerard Warren (2010-11). Signed at age 32, Warren started 10 of the 28 games he was active with the Patriots as a fine rotational player.
  • DL Shaun Ellis (2011). Signed at age 34, Ellis started 10 of 14 games for the worst defense of the Belichick-era and one of the worst in franchise history.
  • DL Tommy Kelly (2013). Signed at age 33 to a two-year deal, Kelly played and started 5 games before tearing his ACL. Kelly asked for his release prior to the 2014 season.
  • DL Isaac Sopoaga (2013). The Patriots acquired Sopoaga and a 2014 sixth round pick for a 2014 fifth round pick midseason after the entire defensive line was depleted by injury. Sopoaga started 2 of 6 games.

Most of these players were signed when the veterans from the Patriots 2001-04 Supr Bowl runs were retiring or changing franchises. Just like how Belichick needed to add veterans when he built his original roster, he did not have the necessary depth in place to get through that transition period and the Patriots were below their typical high standard from 2010-13, joining the 2000-02 and 2005 Patriots as the only Belichick defenses to rank below average in yards allowed.

Hopefully Harris falls into the early-Belichick era free agent veteran category and not the group I just listed.

3. The offensive side of acquiring older veterans hasn’t been much better, although it seems like those players were added as a “cherry on top” instead of with the expectation to be a starter like those defenders.

There are offensive linemen like Mike Compton (2001-03, 34 starts) and Brian Waters (2011, 16 starts, Pro Bowl), tight end Christian Fauria (2002-05, 45 starts over 64 games active), and wide receivers Deion Branch (2010-12, although this a different circumstance) and Brandon Lloyd (2012, 911 yards).

But on the flip side, there are all the players that never did much at all like Joey Galloway (2009), Fred Taylor (2009-10), Chad Ochocinco (2011), Leon Washington (2013), Reggie Wayne (2015), Nate Washington (2016) and many others that never made it through camp.

My guess is that the complexity of the offense makes it more difficult for an aged veteran to come and slot right into the lineup, while defenders have a slightly easier time because of how often the scheme changes. We’ll see if Andrew Hawkins (31 years old) will be added to the list.

4. Can the Patriots avoid a similar roster-transition period that they went through from 2010-13 on both sides of the ball? The list of New England players that will 30 years or older at the start of the season is short, but impactful.

QB Tom Brady (starter, 40 years old), K Stephen Gostkowski (33 years old), LB David Harris (starter?, 33 years old), EDGE Rob Ninkovich (starter, 33 years old), DT Alan Branch (starter, 32 years old), ST Matthew Slater (32 years old on September 9th), WR Julian Edelman (starter, 31 years old), WR Danny Amendola (31 years old), WR Andrew Hawkins (31 years old), FS Devin McCourty (starter, 30 years old), SS Patrick Chung (starter, 30 years old).

So of the 11 players on the Patriots that will be 30 years old on opening week, six are definite starters, a seventh (Harris) is a likely starter), and Gostkowski and Slater are two of the most important special teams players in franchise history, leaving Amendola and Hawkins as the remaining two players.

The Patriots have already started the youth movement on the defensive front so Harris, Ninkovich, and Branch have younger replacements already on the way in Elandon Roberts, Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise Jr., Malcom Brown, and Vincent Valentine. The team has started to address the wide receiver position, too, with the addition of Malcolm Mitchell and the acquisition of Brandin Cooks. I also think that Duron Harmon was extended with the age of the safeties in mind.

But it’s clear that these players are going to leave big, empty shoes for new players to fill and that transition is likely to take place over the next two or three years. We’ll see if the team can do a more seamless job moving forward this time around.

5. ESPN’s Mike Reiss shared a story of how RB James White earned the nickname “Sweet Feet” and it’s a pretty great origin story about his great, great grandfather taking on a cobra that was terrorizing the school and, well, just go read it here.

I’m still struck by the curious incentives in White’s extension with the Patriots that asks him to play 50% or 60% of the snaps and to gain 1,000 or 1,200 yards from scrimmage. Very few running backs for the Patriots ever hit those marks and especially not the receiving back role.

I wonder if White’s role in the offense is going to be bigger than we think.