When Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Mike Vrabel reached free agency after the 2000 season, the Patriots were one of the few teams that came calling.
"There weren't a whole lot," said Vrabel. "I remember [Bill] Cowher saying, 'Call us if you want to come back.' "
Most teams saw a special teams player and situational defender in Vrabel, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick saw a building block.
"He knew that I hadn't played a whole lot in Pittsburgh and he said, 'I'd never give a job to anybody, but there is certainly an opportunity for you if you come in and play well to start for this football team,' " recalled Vrabel. "I thought it was a better opportunity than what I would have in Pittsburgh. I probably would have made the same amount of money in Pittsburgh, but I wouldn't have been playing as much."
Vrabel is the centerpiece of a 2001 free agent class that buttressed a budding dynasty. The group, which included special teams ace Larry Izzo, linebacker Roman Phifer, and wide receiver David Patten, was probably New England's best collection of new additions until now.
This offseason, Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli took a New England team that was an Indianapolis minute away from its fourth Super Bowl appearance since 2001 and through trades and free agency added linebacker Adalius Thomas, wide receivers Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Kelley Washington, and Donté Stallworth, tight end Kyle Brady, and running back Sammy Morris. The result is that the Patriots, who enter tomorrow night's game against the Cincinnati Bengals with the top-ranked offense and defense in the NFL, have started faster than a nitro-methane-fueled dragster, racing to a 3-0 start and outscoring opponents, 114-35.
Trading a fourth-rounder for Moss, who is tied for the NFL lead in touchdown catches (five) and is second in yards (403), and ponying up $35 million for the versatile Thomas, who has plugged a hole at middle linebacker, were headline-grabbing coups.
But what has separated the Patriots under Belichick is their ability to identify complementary players.
Among the class of '07, the best examples are Welker, Morris, and Brady.
The Patriots locked in on Welker, who had a career-high 67 catches last year for the Miami Dolphins, as an unrestricted free agent. They ended up acquiring him via trade for second- and seventh-round picks, signing him to a five-year, $16.9 million deal. Quarterback Tom Brady compared Welker to an alacritous canine in training camp and so far he's been a golden receiver with 20 catches for 221 yards and a TD.
Kyle Brady replaced Daniel Graham, who signed with the Denver Broncos, as the Patriots' primary blocking tight end. The 6-foot-6-inch, 280-pound veteran, who signed a two-year, $5.2 million contract, has been a regular part of three-tight-end sets that have given Tom Brady time to pick apart defenses and cleared the way for the running game.
Morris was looked upon as a backup for second-year running back Laurence Maroney, but the former Dolphin has carved out a larger role. Morris, who signed a four-year deal with a $1.5 million signing bonus and a yearly base salary of $900,000, has 33 carries for 151 yards and two TDs and is the team's best runner in goal-line and short-yardage situations.
The match game
Kansas City Chiefs president/CEO/general manager Carl Peterson said the Patriots' approach to augmenting their team via trades and free agency is nearly flawless.
"I think New England has certainly been a model for all of us," said Peterson, who has been KC's chief decision-maker since 1989. "They just continually reload each year.
"I think Bill and Scott have a great understanding of the type of player they want. It is a specific type of player, a versatile guy that can play more than one position. They select the guys they want and get deals done and insert them into their team.
"It seems like every player on that football team has a role. I take my hat off to them because they've been able to do it on a consistent basis over six, seven years, as good as anybody."
Peterson said teams always look for players who match their system. Kansas City looks for corners who can tackle and safeties who can cover a lot of ground to fit coach Herm Edwards's Tampa-2 defensive scheme. However, Peterson said few teams project players to new roles the way the Patriots did with Thomas, who was a Pro Bowl outside linebacker in Baltimore but has moved inside.
"I think it is a leap of faith. I came into this league as an assistant coach and normally you want someone that you've seen do it over and over again," said Peterson. "You want to feel confident they will do what is asked. It is a lot to ask them to change positions in a new scheme. I think New England does it better than everybody. Five or six [teams] will do that."
Peterson also lauded the Patriots for deals like the one they made for Moss.
"The guy was average in production the last three years - we saw him at Oakland twice a year - but they're getting the most out of him," said Peterson.
With gambles like Moss and Corey Dillon, who came to the Patriots from Cincinnati for a second-round pick in 2004, Peterson said, "You have to have confidence that you can turn that key that can ignite him and get him going. You take those chances and its risk and reward."
Some misses, too
Buffalo general manager Marv Levy, who led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls as coach in the 1990s, said it's easier to attract quality free agents when you're a championship team. The Patriots' overall acquisition track record is exemplary, but before this offseason, they had been off base more often recently.
In 2005, instead of diamonds in the rough they unearthed cubic zirconia, guys who looked like they could play and couldn't. They traded a fifth-round choice for cornerback Duane Starks, who was mercifully put on injured reserve with a shoulder injury midway through the season, although it could have been whiplash from receivers blowing past him. Linebacker Monty Beisel, imported from Peterson's Chiefs, was also a huge bust. The team badly misjudged Beisel's ability to transition from the 4-3 system he had played in with Kansas City to an inside linebacker role in the Patriots' 3-4 scheme.
In 2006, cornerback Eric Warfield, another former Chief, didn't make it out of training camp.
But there has been far more hits than misses. Rodney Harrison (2003), Rosevelt Colvin (2003), and Jabar Gaffney, who was picked up off the street last year, are all examples of sage decision-making. Reche Caldwell, a free agent signee in 2006, was the team's leading receiver last season.
"The person who gets the least credit for the tremendous job he does is Scott Pioli," said Levy. "He doesn't get enough credit - or at least the credit he deserves - for all of their success."
The players appreciate the offseason work of Belichick and Pioli.
"I think they've done a good job," said Vrabel. "You have to draft well and hit a few home runs with free agency. They've done well with mid-level free agents and now adding the guys they added this year. They went a little bigger this year and it's worked out great."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.