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The Lions and Dolphins are buying hard on former Patriots. It probably won’t work out

Players who redeem their value in New England rarely keep it elsewhere.

New England Patriots v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Matt Patricia and Brian Flores are each disciples of the Patriot Way™. Both got their NFL coaching starts in New England. Both spent more than a decade working their way through Bill Belichick’s organizational chart. Both were in charge of the defense before being hired away for head coaching jobs in Detroit and Miami, respectively.

Now both are investing heavily in former Patriots when it comes to the 2020 season. Their backgrounds tell them it’s the right move to simulate the winning cultures where their careers took flight. A look back at the past two decades suggests it won’t be that simple.

Neither coach has had success replicating New England’s model, though this offseason has set the blueprint for how they’ll try again. It involves several familiar faces with winning backgrounds.

Both the Dolphins and Lions have aggressively pursued former and current New England players at the start of the 2020 league year. After Miami inked linebacker (and occasional fullback) Elandon Roberts to a one-year contract Wednesday, Patricia and Flores had signed as many of the Patriots’ free agents this offseason as Belichick had.

That will lead to an influx of talent on needy rosters. But, as past results have shown, it’s no guarantee of success — or even modest improvements.

Loading your roster with former Patriots rarely means a Patriot-like outcome

New England’s top stars shine as part of a constellation. Belichick’s modus operandi has been to mix homegrown talent and buy-low veterans from other teams with the occasional high-profile free agent to create a consistent contender. Several players have gone from unwanted to undeniable after arriving in New England. In the past two decades, castoffs like Mike Vrabel, Rob Ninkovich, and Dion Lewis all played important roles on championship teams after being released or simply unsigned by their original teams.

Many of these veterans have struggled after signing rich contracts elsewhere. While these players may excel in Foxborough, they often fail to live up to this inflated value once they’re signed away.

There are many examples of this happening over the last two decades. Here are four that stand out:

  • David Patten was a journeyman special teamer who became a trusted, versatile wideout for Tom Brady in four seasons with New England. Washington signed him to a five-year contract in 2005, then watched him make 23 catches the following two years before cutting him.
  • Akeem Ayers went from the Titans’ trash heap to a starting linebacker who played a major role as the Pats won Super Bowl 49. The Rams signed him away on a two-year, $6 million deal the following offseason, and he disappointed before being released one year later.
  • LeGarrette Blount redeemed himself as an NFL running back after being traded to the Patriots for Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick. The Steelers stole him away from Belichick one season later by tripling his salary. Thanks to a combination of ineffectiveness and apathy, he was cut by Pittsburgh after 11 games. He’d return to the Patriots and lift the Lombardi Trophy months later.
  • Malcolm Butler blossomed from an undrafted free agent to Super Bowl hero under Belichick. The Titans signed him to a top-of-the-market contract in 2018 and are still waiting for him to regain his All-Pro form.

That doesn’t mean signing players who’ve thrived under Belichick is ultimately a bad idea. Players like Akiem Hicks, Wes Welker, and Jabaal Sheard boosted their careers in New England and then had fine seasons afterward. Even so, there are enough cautionary tales here to preach caution when it comes to hoping for too much from a former Patriot success stories.

The Lions and Dolphins are betting hard on players who may struggle away from New England

Despite retaining Devin and Jason McCourty, Matthew Slater, and Joe Thuney early in the free agent process, most of the Patriots’ headlines involve departures. Various pieces of 2019’s top-ranked defense were left exposed to the open market thanks to a tight salary cap situation and New England’s looming quarterback concerns.

That allowed the Lions and Dolphins to swoop in, but the bulk of the players they picked up may not be able to translate their Belichick-inspired revival to a new setting.

  • Jamie Collins was traded to Cleveland in 2016, where he inked a four-year, $50 million extension. He made it only two seasons into that contract before being released. He bounced back in New England after signing a one-year, $2 million deal and set career highs in sacks (seven), QB pressures (30), and interceptions (three). He parlayed that into a three-year, $30 million contract with the Lions.
  • Kyle Van Noy couldn’t live up to his second-round billing with the Lions before being traded to the Pats (along with a seventh-round pick) for a sixth-rounder in 2016. He flourished into one of the game’s most versatile and effective linebackers under Belichick, who re-signed him to a two-year, $11.75 million extension before his rookie contract could expire after the 2017 season. He just signed with Miami for four years and $51 million.
  • The Browns gave up on former first-round pick Danny Shelton after three seasons of roughly average play up front. He played a rotational role for the Patriots in 2018, came back to the club on a dirt cheap $1.03 million deal, then put together the best year of his career in the middle of the league’s stingiest defense. The Lions rewarded that with a two-year, $8 million contract.
  • Ted Karras was a backup lineman and former sixth-round pick who had been a depth guy for the Pats his first three seasons in the league. He stepped into David Andrews’ spot at center when Andrews was sidelined with blood clots in his lungs and exceeded expectations, sealing off 98 percent of his blocks. He turned that into a one-year, $4 million deal with Miami that serves as a 555 percent raise from 2019.
  • Elandon Roberts was an undrafted free agent who contributed at linebacker AND fullback. He made 28 starts at inside linebacker the past three seasons and stepped in to facilitate the New England offense when both James Develin and Jakob Johnson were lost to injury. After playing four years at minimum prices for Belichick, the Dolphins signed him to a contract whose terms haven’t yet been reported.

Sense a trend? The five players the Dolphins and Lions signed who went from being overlooked to important pieces of a playoff team in New England. History indicates the majority of these players won’t play up to the standard of their new paychecks now that they’ve left the Patriots.

For the Lions and Dolphins, who’ve invested heavily in these veterans, that’s potentially a problem.