While the Patriots didn’t sign a marquee name on the first day of free agency yesterday, they were still involved in one of the most active offseason days in the recent history of the franchise. They bid farewell to a defensive mainstay, were raided by a former coordinator, and gave the offense a boost with the addition of a veteran running back and tight end.
Over the last decade, few players were more readily identifiable with the Patriots’ success than outside linebacker Mike Vrabel.
Rescued off the scrap heap in Pittsburgh, he signed with New England as an unrestricted free agent in March 2001. Vrabel became a key figure in New England’s success, serving as a perfect fit at outside linebacker in Bill Belichick’s 3-4 defense. He was consistent, never playing fewer than 13 games in his eight seasons in New England and always maintaining a consistent pass rush — he finished 2007 with 12.5 regular-season sacks, and had 48 sacks in his eight years with the Patriots. In addition, he was a versatile presence, moving to inside linebacker when needed, and lining up at tight end and becoming a dependable red-zone presence — most notably when he caught touchdown passes in Super Bowl XXXVIII and XXXIX.
“Mike is one of our most consistent, versatile players,” said Belichick last October. “We ask him to do a lot of things defensively, and also goal-line stuff on offense [and] things like that. Mike’s very smart. He’s one of the best-prepared, smartest players I’ve ever coached. He can do a lot of things in regular defense, sub defenses. He can rush the passer, play in coverage. He has a lot of different responsibilities. He kind of thrives when we’re changing things up — he’s doing different things and playing in different spots. We move him around. But we ask him to do that a lot because he does a good job of it.”
Sources say Vrabel was sent to Kansas City for an undisclosed draft pick.
What this means: The move will help the Patriots when it comes to finding more cap space — according to multiple sources, the 33-year-old Vrabel was slated to make just over $3 million in 2009. However, it leaves the franchise with a hole at outside linebacker. New England does have some younger options at outside linebacker, including Shawn Crable, who was drafted out of Michigan last year who ended up spending the bulk of this past season on injured reserve. In addition, other potential outside linebackers on the roster include Tully Banta-Cain, Adalius Thomas, Vince Redd and Pierre Woods, and they could also bring back Rosevelt Colvin if he was available. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if they now placed an even greater emphasis on finding the next great young outside linebacker in this year’s draft. And it also wouldn’t surprise me if this was just the first piece of a much bigger deal somewhere down the road.
When he left New England for the head-coaching job in Denver, Josh McDaniels was very clear about the fact that he would not poach any coaches from the Patriots.
Players? Well, that’s a different story.
Just hours into free agency, long snapper Lonie Paxton — one of the longest tenured players on the New England roster — signed a five-year, $5.5 million contract that includes a $1 million signing bonus with the Broncos that will make him the second-highest paid long snapper in the NFL. He wasn’t the only one — later in the day, Denver announced that they had signed wide receiver Jabar Gaffney to a four-year, $10 million deal with $3 million in guaranteed money.
Paxton’s agent Paul Sheehy confirmed the specifics of the deal Friday afternoon to WEEI.com.
“It’s truly bittersweet for Lonie — he loves Boston and the city has been just great to him,” Sheehy wrote in an e-mail. “Same goes for the Pats organization … first-class all the way. It was a life-changing deal financially for him, so as a business decision, it was one which he had to make.”
Since he arrived in 2000, Paxton has been a big part of the success of New England’s special teams. His steady consistency was a hallmark of the Patriots’ punting, field goal and extra-point units. In addition, he executed flawlessly on several huge occasions, including on the game-tying and game-winning field goals to beat Oakland in the 2001 Divisional Playoffs, as well as the game-winning field goal that beat St. Louis at the end of Super Bowl XXXVI. He’s helped a pair of New England kickers — Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski — reach the Pro Bowl.
“Lonie is the best snapper I’ve seen,” Gostkowski said last October. “He takes his job seriously, and is good at what he does. He doesn’t read too much into it. Having a guy who has been there and snapped for a good kicker before, he’s been through different situations. It’s always good to have someone to lean upon. Show you the ropes. Having Lonie here is definitely beneficial for me. He still helps me out, day-to-day.”
As for Gaffney, he’s spent the last three seasons in New England, mostly working as the No. 3 receiver behind Randy Moss and Wes Welker. He’s had good moments (a combined 18 catches for 207 yards in the first two playoff games in 2006) and some bad ones (his wide-open drop against Indianapolis this past season was one of the unquestioned lowlights of the year), but was a solid locker room presence who will be missed by many of his teammates, including Randy Moss, who was one of Gaffney’s closest friends.
What this means: The Patriots simply won’t be able to find a more consistent long snapper than Paxton — I can’t recall a botched kick or punt since he got here. New England will likely hold auditions for the job throughout the offseason and into training camp before settling on a new long snapper. With Gaffney’s departure the Patriots are in the market for a new third receiver. If they don’t find a replacement in free agency, they would either give one of the younger receivers (Matthew Slater?) a shot to win the job, or look for a pass-catcher in the middle to late rounds of the draft.
Finally, the Patriots added running back Fred Taylor and tight end Chris Baker. Taylor is a veteran who’s spent the first 11 years of his career with Jacksonville. The 33-year-old is a borderline Hall of Famer — he’s 16th on the NFL’s all-time list of rushing leaders with 11,271 career yards, and has 62 career touchdowns.
Taylor has been a feature back for most of his career, rushing for more than 1,000 yards seven times in his career, including 1,202 yards in 2008. But Taylor downshifted the last few years, sharing more and more carries with Maurice Jones-Drew the last few seasons (last year was just the fourth time in his career he finished a season with less than 200 carries). As a result, more rest may have allowed him to extend his career another couple of years.
It would be more of the same in New England, where Taylor would be a part of a running back rotation that would include Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, LaMont Jordan, Laurence Maroney and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
“I have tremendous respect for Fred Taylor, both as a person and as a player whose production is outstanding,” said Belichick in a statement issued by the Patriots last night. “I look forward to working with Fred as he joins the rest of our running back group.”
“There’s no set number of carries (that will keep me happy),” Taylor said. “Ever since I got into the league I have been trying to make it go the distance on one carry. You have to have that mindset to take advantage of each one. So, my job is to come in there and try to help the squad win — whatever it takes. I’m going to be ready. I can guarantee you that much. I’m going to be ready to play. Each opportunity I get, I’m going to try to make it happen.”
As for Baker, he saw his best season in 2007 when he finished with 41 catches. The 29-year-old lost playing time last season with the arrival of Dustin Keller, and was released last week in a salary-cap maneuver. If last season proves to be an unnatural glitch and he returns to pre-2008 form, he could have a significant impact on the New England offense. (He had a combined 72 catches in the two seasons between 2006-2007.) However, if the coaching staff believes it marks the beginning of the end, he won’t make it past training camp.
What this means: Running backs are like starting pitchers — you just can’t have too many. But you have to figure with six running backs currently on the active roster, someone will be on the outside looking in when training cap rolls around. As for Taylor, he’ll likely be used primarily on first and second down. Baker joins an equally crowded group at tight end, where he will fight for playing time with Ben Watson, David Thomas, Tyson DeVree and Brad Listorti.
Christopher Price covers the Patriots for WEEI.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.