10 Free Agent Additions in the Belichick Era Who Immediately Brought a Championship
With NFL Free Agency set to truly begin at 4:00 p.m. Eastern on Thursday, it got me thinking about the best players the always frugal Bill Belichick has signed in his tenure as head coach/general manager/NFL Sith Lord. For some reason the New England media likes to take pot shots at GM Belichick. This, despite Belichick clearly knowing EXACTLY what he is doing (five Lombardi Trophies with the Pats not good enough for you?). The reason most doubt him is because most of his free agent pickups are under the radar guys. However, these guys always tend to come up with pivotal plays in the most important games. To prove my point, here are the Patriots top 10 free agent signings.
(This list is a catalogue of players that won championships in their first year after getting signed; so while guys like Danny Amendola and the tremendously badass Junior Seau have loads of real estate in my Patriot loving heart, they do not make the cut).
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No. 10: Bryan Cox
We begin our list with the baddest man of the 10, Bryan Cox. Most people forget this now, but Belichick was far from lights out in his first year at Foxboro (5-11… seriously). Belichick needed somebody to bring an attitude to the team and provide accountability after the uninspiring 2000 campaign. When the New York Jets (he he he, thanks Jets) cut Cox after his third year with the club and 10th in the NFL, Belichick (whom you might remember was a part of the Jets coaching staff at one time… napkins are a lovely instrument) gave Cox a call and the ornery middle linebacker came running. Cox did not have an All-Pro season statistically (54 tackles, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and six sack), but he bring a much-needed nastiness to the defense. Like most of the guys on the list, Cox’s statistics pale in comparison to the handful of season-defining plays he provided. What has gotten lost to history because of all the other craziness from the Snow Bowl game is Cox’s massive stop to return the ball to the Pats and setup the game-tying field goal.
The Raiders had the ball prior to the two-minute warning and were facing a 3rd & 1. A first down on the play and the game… is… over. The Raiders go-to play in the situation was an inside handoff to their fullback Zack Crockett. Belichick (of course) knew the play was coming and sent Cox up the gut to meet Crockett. The run ended up being Crockett’s Alamo; Cox stuffed Crockett, the Patriots got the ball back and history ensued. Without Cox, the Patriots never get to the first Super Bowl and who knows if Brady and Belichick get to raise five (or more) Lombardis. (Cox would briefly play the next season in New Orleans before retiring).
No. 9: Antowain Smith
Sticking to guys that helped with the first trophy, we turn to the first of a prototype, Antowain Smith (you know it has been a while when it takes three attempts to spell the first name correctly). Belichick has a long and storied history of renting out aging running backs or backs that other teams have given up on, but before there was a Legarrette Blount, Danny Woodhead, or Dion Lewis, there was Antowain Smith. Smith spent his first four years in Buffalo and while he eclipsed 1,000 yards from scrimmage in his first two seasons, he failed to hit 700 in his next two. Pulling his first Welker (taking a player from within the division and improving him by putting on a Patriots jersey), Belichick convinced Smith to head to Foxboro for the 2001 season. All Smith did was run for 1,157 yards, averaging four yards a carry and scoring 12 rushing touchdowns (his most for any season). Smith was also a crucial cog in the super bowl as the Patriots played the clock management game and did their best to keep the ball out of Kurt Warner’s hands and stymie the Greatest Show on Turf (Smith totaled 92 yards on 18 carries). Smith stayed for two more years and scored a touchdown in the Patriots win over the Panthers in the 2003 Super Bowl before heading to browner pastures for two more seasons in New Orleans and Tennessee before retiring.
No. 8: David Patten
Think I like the 2001 squad? We have a linebacker, a running back, and now we have a wide receiver in David Patten. Patten played three seasons with the Giants as an afterthought before starting 11 games for the Browns in 2000. Patten never scored more than two touchdowns in a season before joining the Pats. A free agent signing in 2001, Patten caught four touchdowns and amassed 749 receiving yards while chipping in a touchdown on the ground. Where Patten really made his hay was in the big games. Patten grabbed four catches with a touchdown in the 2001 AFC Championship game against the Steelers before making just one catch in the next one… Tom Brady’s first Super Bowl touchdown pass. Patten went on to play three more years, adding two more rings to his collection before two years in Washington and finishing his career in… New Orleans–save for a 2010 training camp invite from the Pats (an odd amount of Patriots spend time with the Saints after they left town).
No. 7: Chris Long
Finally, a recent guy. When the Patriots signed long-time Ram Chris Long prior to the 2016 season, I was alllllll smiles. This was a veteran who knew he would have to swallow his pride playing behind Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. About that… Nink got busted for PEDs prior to the season and Jones went bye bye to the Cardinals. All of a sudden Long was not just a smart addition, he was a necessary piece of the puzzle. He came up with a sack in the Patriots first game of the season under Jimmy G and had no problem doing whatever Belichick and Matt Patricia asked of him throughout the season. When Ninkovich came back and Jabaal Sheard returned from his self-imposed exile, Long took a back seat in terms of playing time. But this was a veteran that wanted a ring and a ring he did get. Long was promised a chance to play in the playoffs and when the Patriots made it, he did everything he could to help the squad. Long recorded just one tackle in the three games, but without his forcing a crucial holding penalty, the Patriots never have a chance for their comeback. Plus, Long winning a ring gave the football world one of the coolest moments of the season when Chris celebrated on air with his Hall of Fame papa Howie Long.
No. 6: Martellus Bennett
Talk about an insurance guy. Another addition prior to the 2016 season, Martellus Bennett showed he is one of the toughest S.O.B.s in football. Bennett had to deal with a myriad of injuries in the 2016 campaign and missed a total of… zero games. Technically he was brought in via a trade with the Bears for a fourth round pick, but he was worth a flyer for the Patriots as history proved they needed an insurance policy for Rob Gronkwoski. Bennett’s ability to keep the locker room light with a stupendously wacky quote was surpassed by his seven touchdowns and 701 receiving yards. He accomplished all of this while being the second best blocking tight end in the NFL. Now the Bennett brothers each have a Super Bowl ring and they got that going for them, which is nice.
No. 5: Dion Lewis
Ok, shut up. I get it. I know what you are yelling; “how can a guy that the Patriots have yet to lose a game with when he is healthy end up at No. 5?” Because this is my list, shut up. Yes, the Patriots have yet to lose a game with a healthy Dion Lewis, but a healthy Lewis is not a given so he drops a bit (Lewis’ injury history also gives me the chance to exempt him from my first year championship rule). Lewis went two years without playing in an NFL game and might go down as one of Belichick’s greatest finds, but on my list he comes down at five. Lewis has appeared in just 14 games in his two years with the Patriots and totaled four touchdowns (it feels like 20, right?). The flexibility he provides for the Patriots offense is season-altering stuff, but his putrid performance in the Falcon’s Super Bowl drops him down in the list despite the Patriots perfect record when he is healthy. However, because the Patriots are perfect with him on the field, he sits at five. I had him as high as two and as low as eight… so this is my compromise.
No. 4: Brandon Browner
Like the man holding down the 10 spot, Brandon Browner was a clear decision by Belichick to infuse the defense with a new personality. That personality could best be described as “I’m going to talk about punching you in the mouth, actually punch you in the mouth, and afterwards tell you all about how I punched you in the mouth.” Browner spent three years with the Legion of Boom and Belichick wanted the tall, strong corner and his attitude for his 2014 season. Browner had to miss the first part of 2014 serving a PED suspension as the Patriots went 2-2. Browner came back, the defense went on a roll and the rest is history. While some Patriots fans mostly remember his regular season full of holding penalties and pass interference calls, his super bowl was fantastic. Not only did he have the best jam in the history of press coverage, allowing Malcolm Butler to come up with the greatest interception in NFL history, but the Patriots defense also settled down when he made the switch to cover the 6’5 Chris Matthews. Without that move the Patriots and Malcolm Butler probably do not secure Lobardi No. 4.
No. 3: Darrelle Revis
It is impossible to talk about the 2014 Patriots season without mentioning Darrelle Revis. When the Patriots signed Revis on March 12, 2014, fans immediately wiped away memories of numerous third and longs converted by middling opposing quarterbacks. With Revis Island vacationing in Foxboro alongside a soldier from the Legion of Boom, the Patriots defense turned things around and the years of shady defensive back coverages disappeared. Revis pulled in just two interceptions (his first on a great read against Indianapolis) during the year, but the confidence he gave Patricia to open up the defensive playbook set the tone for the season. Revis did get scored on (thanks to a pick by the umpire) in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks, but the best negotiator in the history of NFL Free Agency brought the Patriots a ring after years of Spy Gate talk and for that we are all grateful, and for that he is No. 3 on the list.
No. 2: Rodney Harrison
You want a defensive attitude? YOU WANT A DEFENSIVE ATTITUDE?!?! I’LL GIVE YOU A DEFENSIVE ATTITUDE!!!! Rodney friggin’ Harrison. My goodness. Harrison would be put in jail with some of the hits he delivered in his time with the Patriots.
Harrison was an absolute force in his first nine years with the Chargers. He hit free agency after the 2002 season and the Patriots seduced him to the dark side… WITH A TRIP TO THE GROUND ROUND (I miss their broccoli and cheese soup to be honest). Harrison was the hammer on the oaken handle of the sledgehammer that was the Patriots defense. The Patriots followed up their 2001 Super Bowl with an underwhelming 9-7 campaign. When Harrison went cross country to Foxboro, the Patriots defense took on his personality and the rest is history; back-to-back championships to solidify the front end of the Patriots dynasty. He literally sealed the deal on the back end of the first part of the dynasty by picking off Donovan McNabb. However, despite the awesomeness that was Harrison’s time with the Patriots, casual fans only recognize him from the back of his jersey… as he is ushering David Tyree to the ground in the play that shall not be named. Because of this, he gets bumped from the top spot by…
No. 1: Mike Vrabel
Your No. 1 Free Agent Championship signing in the Belichick Era is the quintessential free agent Patriot signing and prototype Patriot: Mike Vrabel. Vrabel was used as a sub rusher for four years in Pittsburgh, topping out at 14 tackles in his first year and 2.5 sacks in his second… they chose poorly. In his first season (2001) with the Patriots he tallied 40 tackles, grabbed two interceptions and added three sacks. However, what makes Vrabel the top free agent signing is his versatility. Versatility is the most sought after trait for the Patriots and Bill Belichik. Not only did Vrabel rack up the above statistics in his first season, but he also had a penchant for showing up on the offensive end as well:
Vrabel was money whether it was on defense or offense. He played eight seasons with the Patriots, and his numbers were ok: 411 tackles, 48 sacks, 13 forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, a shocking 11 interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and oh yeah… eight regular season touchdowns and two super bowl touchdowns. His career 12 touchdowns on 12 catches is a tough ratio to beat. So the versatility gives him equal footing with Harrison, but where he jumps dangerous No. 37 (besides the moment not mentioned above), is that he joined the club in 2001. Vrabel was there for the start of the Patriots dynasty, collecting three rings from 2001-2004. He was one of the foundations of the Belichick era and in terms of free agent signings, represented everything it meant to be a Patriots in terms of versatility and a willingness to do whatever it took to win. And win is exactly what the Patriots did when they signed Vrabel and the rest of the guys on this list.