In the past 15 years, the New England Patriots have been the most dominant team in the NFL. A big reason for that is having Tom Brady at quarterback, but the deft way Bill Belichick manages his roster is also key. His team-building philosophies have been perfectly encapsulated in a series of moves this offseason.
One of Belichick's greatest strengths is his willingness to evolve. He often elects to discard players a year too early rather than a year too late and is always willing to buy low on talent as well. These moves may be puzzling on the surface, but a deeper look shows that they help explain why the Patriots have been able to replenish their roster for 15 years.
Staying ahead of the curve -- whether it's trading Chandler Jones after he records a career-high number of sacks or acquiring Martellus Bennett after a tumultuous campaign in Chicago -- allows the Patriots to rarely overpay for players. Brady may never have the flashiest supporting cast in a particular season, but he's never been forced to experience a rebuilding year.
There are three specific aspects to the Belichick Doctrine, and all of them have been on display as the Patriots gear up for the 2016 campaign.
1. Buy-low acquisitions
With the absence of top draft picks and an apparent aversion to the free agent market, Belichick must rely on other means to pick up elite talent. One formula he's employed over the years is the art of the low-risk, high-reward move.
Every year, there are at least a couple of former stars who have worn out their welcomes with their respective teams or are looking to rebuild their value on a short-term deal. Many of these players have come through Foxborough and played integral roles in the Patriots' success.
The prize of this offseason was Bennett, a tight end the Patriots picked up from the Bears in exchange for a fourth-round pick. Bennett, 29, acted his way out of Chicago the last couple of years when he body-slammed a rookie during practice, held out from his contract and complained about his role in the offense. And yet, he's just one season removed from a 90-catch campaign.
At 6'7, 248 pounds, Bennett has a chance to be the most explosive complement to Rob Gronkowski since Aaron Hernandez. He impressed at OTAs last week, catching a touchdown pass from Brady while reaching over safety Patrick Chung.
Brady to Bennett, touchdown! pic.twitter.com/9ZPMXrnb3K— New England Patriots (@Patriots) May 26, 2016
In addition to Bennett, the Patriots brought aboard defensive linemen Chris Long and Terrance Knighton on one-year "prove it" deals. Long has missed a total of 14 games over the last two seasons, but was once one of the elite pass rushers in the league. Knighton played on a limited basis in Washington last year, but could be due for a bounceback season thanks to a new rule that eliminates chop blocks from the game.
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2. Parting ways with players at the right time
Belichick shrewdly casts veteran players aside once their salary no longer matches their production. The example from last year was Darrelle Revis, who won a Super Bowl in his one year in New England and then rejoined the Jets on a massive deal that included $39 million guaranteed. The move couldn't have worked out better for the Patriots. Revis had an inconsistent season with the Jets and his replacement, Malcolm Butler, only made $600,000 in 2015.
Revis joined a long line of greats, including Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins and Wes Welker, who unceremoniously left New England. None of those players replicated their production once they parted ways with the Patriots.
The decision to trade Jones to the Arizona Cardinals is a little bit different, considering he's just 26 years old. But Jones will be a free agent in 2017. With linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins set to hit the open market next year as well, Belichick viewed Jones as expendable.
The reasoning for that may be deeper than the numbers. Jones has a habit of disappearing during games -- he only recorded one sack during two playoffs contests last season -- and needed medical attention after using synthetic marijuana the week before the Divisional round. He doesn't appear to fit the profile of a player Belichick would invest in long-term.
The return the Patriots received for Jones is underwhelming at first glance. They declined offensive guard Jonathan Cooper's fifth-year option and now only have a second-round pick to show for the trade. But next year, they probably would've had to let Jones go for nothing. If Long, Jabaal Sheard, and young pass rushers Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers can come close to replicating Jones' production, this deal will go down as a win.
3. Getting players to sign team-friendly deals
Over the years, the Patriots continually have been able to convince players to play for less. Brady sets the tone here, signing a two-year extension this offseason after restructuring his contract the year before to help free up money for the team during free agency. The new deal could be worth as much as $60 million, but it spreads out his cap hit over four seasons instead of two.
But perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is the recently restructured contract of Danny Amendola. The veteran wideout will take a $4.4 million pay cut to stay in New England this season, with only $1.35 million guaranteed. Though Amendola has been a slight disappointment with the Patriots, he's emerged as a key cog in their offense. The allure of guaranteed Super Bowl contention is apparently too much for him, and many players, to pass up.
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