The New England Patriots front office has long been among he best in the NFL; otherwise the team's dynastic run would not have been able to sustain in its form. Among the major members of the group is Bill Belichick's right-hand man when it comes to personnel decisions, director of player personnel Nick Caserio. The 42-year old plays as big a part within the franchise as anybody else.
Caserio – as illustrated in the second installment of the Do Your Job-documentary – wears numerous hats and plays an important role during practices, pre-game preparation and the actual games themselves. He also is a key member of the Patriots' front office and serves as the team's de-facto general manager alongside Belichick. As such, he is one of the most knowledgable people in the league when it comes to roster building.
On Saturday, Caserio briefly talked about just that as part of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. The long-time Patriots staff member – he joined the team in 2001 and worked his way up from a low-level assistant role – was one of the members of a panel discussion focussing on how to build championship teams. Caserio gave insight into how New England tries to do it (via ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss):
“The way salary structure is put together, you have ‘X’ amount of players who are on elite-level contracts on your roster, you have minimum-salary players which are typically draft choices and younger players, and then you have a middle class – whatever the range may be, that is another grouping of players,” Caserio said about New England's approach to creating a roster. “A lot of those players have a significant role and make a significant contribution to your team.”
Caserio continued talking about how a player's role impacts his value to the franchise and by extension his contract: “What we try to do, as best we can, is identify what the player’s role [is] and the cost associated with that. If the player continues in that role, and the salary is commensurate with that role, it makes sense. If for some reason there starts to be a gap there, there has to be some sort of an adjustment.”
“I think a perfect example of a role player for our team [is] James White,” continued Caserio before explaining why the 26-year old is just that. “We drafted James White in the fourth round and at the time, we had Shane Vereen on the roster as well. In 2014, Shane played great in the Super Bowl, and had a really good role as our passing-game back, third-down kind of sub back. So we had drafted James and he didn’t play that much because we had Shane in that role.”
Caserio then went on to elaborate why the Patriots decided to move forward with White instead of Vereen: “Shane was going to be a free agent. What we had to do, it was this time of year exactly, say, 'OK, Shane was a good player, had a lot of great qualities, and in our system was a really productive player, and he was going to be a free agent.' He went on the open market and he was associated a certain value and [we] made a decision that, 'OK, we’re going to move on from Shane' because we felt – we didn’t know because it really wasn’t a lot of evidence/body of work – but going back to when we drafted James, we liked his skill set.”
New England's director of player personnel continued talking about White and how he grew from a quasi projection into one of the team's most important offensive players: ”In college offenses, you don’t see a lot of passing-game backs or passing-game players, so there’s a little bit of a projection element when you have that player in our system. So we moved on from Shane, James kind of asserted himself into that role, and we saw what he did in 2016, quasi-MVP of the Super Bowl, caught 11 balls. Really, he’s one of our most reliable, most dependable players.”
”We made the decision to extend James a year ahead of free agency, and his role is as important as any player on our team,” Caserio further said about the running back, who signed a three-year, $12.0 million contract extension with the Patriots during the 2017 offseason and has established himself as the team's top option when it comes to the third down running back role.
“He played 30 or 40 percent of the time,” Caserio said about White's usage. “I think we had 274 third-down plays for the entire season and he was on the field for 171 or 172 of those, and he missed two games. Those roles are really, really important. Do they play 60-70-80 percent of the game? No, but without that player, you better have somebody that can actually fill that role because if you don’t you have to go outside and find it.”
The Patriots have numerous players like White on their roster, players who are assigned a specific role and whose value to the club is defined by how well they perform in it. Wide receiver Danny Amendola is another example for this, as if free safety Duron Harmon. Both players have clearly defined roles – Amendola as a late-down and red zone receiver, Harmon as the centerfield safety against certain pass-first packages – and excel in them, which in turn justifies New England's investment.
Caserio also went on to talk about the importance of the wide receiver position within the Patriots' offense, the team's front office culture of empowerment and turning the page to a new season. Make sure to check out Mike Reiss' extensive story on the topics and the conference in general.