On the surface, the Patriots' offseason plan appears to be a departure from the norm, the team spending big bucks to infuse its roster.
Coach Bill Belichick, however, sees it differently. He doesn't view the team's aggressive activity in the free agent market as a change in organizational philosophy. He sees it as business as usual, another step in the process of improving the football team.
"Whether we give a player on the team a large contract, or it goes to another player, it's investing in talent," he said after the Patriots signed linebacker Adalius Thomas, tight end Kyle Brady, and running back Sammy Morris, shelling out approximately $24 million in bonuses and guarantees (most of it for Thomas) over the weekend. The Patriots made another move yesterday, landing receiver Wes Welker from Miami via trade after courting him as a restricted free agent.
While the organizational philosophy might not have changed, the avenue by which the Patriots invested in the talent has been different than the last few years. Landing big-ticket items like Thomas in unrestricted free agency hasn't exactly been the team's modus operandi since Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli were hired by the Kraft family to run the football operation in 2000.
And entering this offseason, there was no guarantee that the Patriots would plunge into the market as they have. The plan began to take shape Feb. 22, when it was determined that the Ravens would not place the franchise tag on Thomas.
At that point, Belichick and Pioli saw a rare opportunity -- the chance to land a franchise-type player in unrestricted free agency who could fit well in their system. They mapped and planned, and when free agency officially began at 12:01 a.m. last Friday, they sprang into action.
"In the past, New England had not stepped out on the free agent market in a big, big way compared to a lot of other teams, but we got right after it on Friday," said James "Bus" Cook, Thomas's agent. "That showed how much they wanted this guy."
It was a situation in which all the footballs were aligned: The Patriots had ample salary cap space, Thomas was a good fit for their system and locker room and decided quickly that he wanted to play for them, and the unassuming Cook wasn't interested in putting together a contract that might look better than it actually was.
Early on, it became clear that the sides were working out of the same playbook.
"We knew what we wanted for A.D. and didn't want to try to funny up a contract with a lot of bells and whistles which never come to fruition," Cook said. "New England wasn't going to do it, anyway. It was a straight deal. A.D. got what he wanted, they got what they wanted, and I think everybody wins."
Not that the process didn't require exceptional effort from all sides.
Cook, who also represents Packers quarterback Brett Favre, negotiated the deal from his Hattiesburg, Miss., office. He was in constant communication with Pioli, the point man in Foxborough. Meanwhile, Thomas was in Baltimore, kept in the loop by various calls from Cook.
"We went back and forth during the course of the day Friday, everybody giving and taking, but it was clear from the start that we both had the same objective: to get A.D. a deal," Cook said. "Scott was very good to work with, and of course, he was consulting with Coach Belichick and Mr. Kraft during the process. It was back and forth in typical negotiations, constant, all day long."
Cook said it never reached a point where negotiations broke down. He added that the Patriots -- who now have spent more than $30 million in bonuses and guarantees when factoring in the Dan Koppen extension from October -- got in a lead position from the get-go and never looked back.
"We worked late into the night, finally getting to the point where we could set up a visit for A.D. for Saturday, and while he was on his way, we were still working on the contract numbers," said Cook, who never traveled to Foxborough for the announcement of the deal.
The contract ended up being a five-year, $35 million package that includes $20 million in bonuses and guarantees. It is the richest contract the Patriots ever have given a player in unrestricted free agency. The only other deal that comes close was outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin's five-year, $25 million package in 2003, which included $6.5 million in bonuses and guarantees.
Otherwise, the Patriots' shopping on the unrestricted free agent market generally has focused on players who don't break the bank. Their 2006 class, for example, was headlined by receiver Reche Caldwell, who signed a two-year, $1.85 million contract that included a $300,000 option bonus due in the second season.
Yet Belichick said that doesn't mean the Patriots haven't paid out big contracts, with quarterback Tom Brady and defensive lineman Richard Seymour landing megadeals in 2005 and 2006.
So essentially, in Belichick's view, there was nothing different about what the Patriots have done over the last four days. Along with Pioli, his goal has been to improve the team with better players at the right value. This time around, the best value came in unrestricted free agency, specifically with Thomas.
"It's not often," Belichick said, "that you have a chance to sign a franchise-type player like him."
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com.