One of the most famous mic’d up moments in league history features then-Atlanta Falcons head coach Jerry Glanville tell a referee that the acronym NFL stands for ‘not for long.’ While Glanville referred to his long-term outlook as a coach if perceived bad calls continued to get made against his team, the general concept behind his statement fits today’s league pretty well: organizations turn their rosters and their staff over frequently.
The New England Patriots experienced this first-hand this offseason — both off the field and on it. When looking at the men currently on the world champions’ payroll, we can see just that and find out how often positions see new faces are brought in to replace older ones.
Quarterback: Tom Brady (2000)
Running back/Fullback: James Develin (2012)*
Wide receiver: Julian Edelman (2009)
Tight end: Ryan Izzo (2018)*
Offensive tackle: Marcus Cannon (2011)
Interior offensive line: Shaq Mason (2015)
Interior defensive line: Lawrence Guy (2017)
Defensive edge: Derek Rivers (2017)
Linebacker: Dont’a Hightower (2012)
Cornerback: Jonathan Jones (2016)
Safety: Devin McCourty (2010)*
Specialists: Stephen Gostkowski (2006)
Special teams: Matthew Slater (2008)
*RB Brandon Bolden (2012), TE Benjamin Watson (2004) and S Patrick Chung (2009) originally joined the team earlier than the players listed but had stints elsewhere since
The list above tells us a few things about the Patriots’ roster construction. We can see, for example, that once the team identifies a player as a core piece, it will hold onto him if the value remains in place. In the case of players like Brady, Slater, or Hightower — all leaders on the team — this is obviously the case. However, a lot of positions do not enjoy the same stability on the top of their depth charts.
As can be seen, New England drastically turned over some of its positions over the last few years, most prominently along the defensive line: the Patriots have no linemen under contract that have been with the team before the 2017’s free agency period when Lawrence Guy was signed. Experienced options like Malcom Brown and Trey Flowers, meanwhile, left the club via free agency this offseason after joining it via the draft in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
The same can be said about the tight end position. Rob Gronkowski held down the top tight end role between 2010 and 2018 but his retirement left an enormous hole at the position. As a result, 2018 seventh-round draft pick Ryan Izzo is now the longest-tenured tight end on New England’s roster (not counting Benjamin Watson, a former Patriots first-round pick that spent the last nine seasons on other teams).
Similar turnover can be witnessed at cornerback and along the interior offensive line — although the latter group in particular includes some younger players on their second deals in Shaq Mason and David Andrews who should ensure considerable long-term stability. And that is essentially the story of building an NFL roster in the salary cap era: turnover is impossible to avoid, but important pieces of a team need to be locked up once identified as such.
The Patriots have done a tremendous job of that — and of moving on from misses quickly — under Bill Belichick, which allowed their dynasty to stand the test of time for almost two decades. And it is also what will help them survive the current turnover at positions such as tight end and the defensive line.