The Patriots are at risk of losing several key contributors from the team that made the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. Players like Dont’a Hightower, Malcolm Butler, LeGarrette Blount, and Martellus Bennett could all wind up on new rosters as free agents this spring.
And it probably won’t make a difference.
Bill Belichick has built a drought-resistant franchise in New England, finding ways to win despite the departure of important pieces. This past season, the Patriots posted a 17-2 record and hauled in their fifth NFL title despite discarding 2015’s leading tackler (Jamie Collins) and top pass rusher (Chandler Jones). In their stead, a platoon of veterans and young, homegrown talent — spinning players like Kyle Van Noy, Trey Flowers, Shea McClellin, Hightower, and Elandon Roberts — developed into valued stoppers.
That’s not the first time Belichick and company have waved goodbye to top players rather than risk overpaying them and crippling the franchise’s salary cap flexibility. It’s been a common trait during the team’s 16-year run as one of the league’s elite.
2005: Deion Branch traded, David Givens departs for more money, Willie McGinest released.
Playing with Tom Brady is a lucrative prospect for wide receivers. Branch and Givens proved that in 2006 when they left New England and signed $63 million in contracts with new teams. Branch was traded to Seattle for a first-round pick, then was promptly rewarded with a six-year, $39 million deal. Givens inked a four-year, $24 million pact with the Titans. Neither would reach the peaks they’d climbed in New England in their new homes.
McGinest’s loss sapped a veteran leader and accomplished pass rusher from the lineup.
Tom Brady had to throw passes to free agent signees Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney all season and posted a below-average passer rating, but still managed to lead his team to a 12-4 record and a spot in the AFC title game. McGinest’s leadership was replaced, in part, by Hall of Famer Junior Seau, who joined the team that season as a free agent. New England also elevated reserve linebacker Tully Banta-Cain into a greater role, where he contributed 5.5 sacks in just five starts.
2006: Corey Dillon retires, Adam Vinatieri leaves in free agency.
The 32-year-old Dillon was on his last legs in ‘06, but still effective as the team’s lead back. He ran for more than 800 yards and 13 touchdowns in his final season, creating a void in the 2007 Patriots offense. Vinateri was less than halfway through a Hall of Fame career at the time, but was already a legend in Foxborough for his history of clutch kicks.
Laurence Maroney had been groomed to take over the top tailback spot, but New England brought in an even better contingency plan for 2007: wide receiver Randy Moss. With Moss in the lineup, the Patriots ran the ball nearly 50 times less despite winning 12 games by double digits, instead employing the mercurial wideout and Wes Welker as the team’s offensive workhorses.
The shift paid off for Maroney, too. With opposing defenses focused on stopping the Pats’ aerial attack, he ran for the most yards and highest yards/carry mark of his career.
The Patriots drafted Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL Draft to replace Vinatieri. He’s twice been a first-team All-Pro and is currently the team’s all-time leading scorer.
2008: Asante Samuel, Eugene Wilson, and Randall Gay all leave as free agents.
The Patriots lost three starters from their secondary, leaving a gaping crater where their cornerbacks used to be.
Despite giving multiple starts to players like Jonathan Wilhite, Lewis Sanders, Ellis Hobbs, and 31-year-old Deltha O’Neal, a New England secondary led by noted terrible decision-maker Brandon Meriweather still managed to rank 11th in the league in terms of passing defense. While Matt Cassel led the team to an 11-5 record, it was not enough to make the playoffs in Tom Brady’s absence.
2009: Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, and Matt Cassel get traded.
Seymour was a five-time Pro Bowler, but also 30 years old and in line for a big raise when New England shipped him to Oakland in exchange for a first-round draft pick. The compensation was lower for Vrabel and Cassel, a veteran linebacker and the young quarterback who guided the Patriots to 11 wins the year prior. The pair only fetched a second-round pick in return after being traded to the Chiefs.
New England’s dark age continued, and while the team qualified for the playoffs, it lost soundly in the Wild Card round to the Ravens. Despite losing Seymour and Vrabel, the team jumped from eighth to fifth in the league in scoring defense thanks to the development of second-year linebacker Jerod Mayo and the return of Banta-Cain, who had 10 sacks after rejoining the team as a free agent.
2014: Logan Mankins refuses to take a pay cut, gets traded; Aqib Talib, Brandon Spikes, and LeGarrette Blount leave in free agency.
All-Pro tackle Mankins was a huge part of Tom Brady’s protection from 2005 to 2013, but refused to take a pay cut in his age-32 season. The Patriots shipped him to Tampa Bay in exchange for tight end Tim Wright and a draft pick. Talib was a buy-low cornerback thanks to his off-field issues, but two seasons in Foxborough turned him into an All-Pro — and priced him out of New England’s budget.
Blount, having revived his value as a runner by gaining five yards per carry after being acquired by the Pats, left for greener pastures as well. He signed a two-year contract with the Steelers that offseason, though he’d only last 11 games in black and yellow.
Talib was replaced by free agent Darrelle Revis, who was even better than the man he replaced en route to first-team All-Pro honors. Blount returned to the roster later that season after being released by Pittsburgh, bolstering a tailback platoon that included Jonas Gray, Shane Vereen, and Stevan Ridley.
Replacing Mankins was tougher — players like Jordan Devey, Marcus Cannon, and Dan Connolly cycled through the starting guard spot he vacated during a fretful 2-2 start — but ultimately manageable. Even without two All-Pro players on the roster, the Patriots managed to win Super Bowl 49.
2016: Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins are traded away before they get too expensive.
New England jettisoned two Pro Bowl defenders — one in the offseason, and one leading up to the trade deadline — in exchange for draft capital. With Jones and Collins both set to earn huge contract extensions, the franchise decided to get something in return for their stars rather than risk losing them with no compensation.
While New England’s pass rush declined, the Patriots still managed to cobble together the league’s No. 1 scoring defense thanks to a mix of heady veterans (Van Noy, Alan Branch, Chris Long) and homegrown talent (Hightower, Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Devin McCourty). New England turned the pick received in exchange for Jones into Joe Thuney and Malcolm Mitchell -- two rookies who started Super Bowl LI for the Patriots.