By Jason Keidel
While NFL clubs spend the offseason sweating over their draft picks and free agents — almost always in a very visible and sloppy manner — the New England Patriots go about their yearly spring cleaning with the same stealth and aplomb we see on the field in the fall.
Their latest signing, a sleepy affair, extending WR Julian Edelman for two more years, is the latest move over a three-month period they clearly won, just as they won the latest Super Bowl. And considering how productive Edelman has been, it’s a pretty prudent deal for the Pats — $11 million, with $9 million guaranteed. (The deal could could swell to $15 million with incentives.)
Not bad for a seventh-round pick, who was a quarterback in college, no less. Edelman, 31, showed no signs of decay last year, with 98 receptions for 1,106 yards. Oh, and he’ll be flanked by a healthy Rob Gronkowski and newly acquired speedster Brandin Cooks. Indeed, this contract secures a rather fertile crop of receivers, perhaps the deepest they’ve had in their current epoch. Along with the aforementioned trio, Brady can also throw to Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell.
And Edelman will only cost the Pats $4 million in 2017.
Isn’t this what the Pats do? Pluck players from the bowels of the draft, develop them into studs, then convince them to sign contracts well below market value?
Stud linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who made the essential strip sack on Matt Ryan that allowed the Pats to make their epic comeback in the Super Bowl, was offered between $10 million and $20 million more by the Jets, and still came back to New England. While most clubs would eagerly and anxiously stalk a prized player, the Pats allowed Hightower to test the market, knowing he would return to the fold at a reduced rate.
Tom Brady has routinely accepted cut-rate prices — relative to his deeds and status — to stay in Foxborough. Does anyone doubt Brady could command more than Eli Manning? In 2016, Brady pocketed $13.7 million, to Manning’s $24.2 million. This year Brady, banks $14 million to Manning’s $19.7 million. Yet Brady takes way less for the comforts of home and the security of incessant trips to at least the AFC title game.
While the NFL is indeed a dash-for-cash for most players, coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft have somehow brainwashed these behemoths into pondering cash and cachet with equal heft.
Some cynics (see: haters) will dismiss Edelman as a system player, Brady and Belichick’s brainchild, a slot receiver who would be disposable anywhere else. But the Pats treat everyone so equally and evenhanded that it’s impossible to discern between the indispensable and interchangeable. Other than Brady, we can’t say for certain whom the Pats can’t do without. We all thought Gronk was essential, then they won a Super Bowl without the tight end/dancing bear.
Pro Bowl LB Jamie Collins was another monolith, until the Pats booted him to Cleveland.
It’s one thing to espouse the Army ethic, the selfless coda that has defined our military and other dominant groups. It’s another thing to apply it to 250-pound athletic freaks who make millions to perpetuate biblical violence upon other athletic freaks. In an industry known for disharmony, the Pats are a marvel of harmony, economy and unity.
For Kraft, Belichick and Brady to keep these gifted players on one team in the anarchy of free agency and in the salary-cap crucible, no less, is staggering. You never hear of any infighting or backstabbing, no political, cultural or financial jousting inside the halls, walls or locker room. No salary dumps or bloodlettings, no panic room or room for panic. No team in any team sport handles their business with the low-key regularity of a team that is all but regular. Even when they mistakenly sign a player who morphs into a murderer — like Aaron Hernandez — they cut him, dismiss him and forget him, sans the spiritual fog that usually envelopes a team after such a catastrophe.
It’s become boring, even soporific, as we yawn through another flawless spring and summer from Foxborough. You’d expect such a buttoned-down, immaculate club to be represented by an impeccably dressed general. But Belichick stalks the sideline in his typical hobo-chic wardrobe, mumbling and murmuring through his latest presser, belching bromides, offering no emotion or insight despite his epic appetite for winning.
It takes some measure of luck for such longevity. Drafting Tom Brady in the sixth round, with the 199th pick, was akin to hitting the gridiron lottery of the century. But beyond the serendipity of the 1999 draft, the Pats leave very little to the cosmos.
To borrow from the greatest of all prose and poetry, the Patriots’ prosperity lies not in the stars, but in themselves.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.