One of most satisfying aspects of following the Patriots — at least if you will allow it to be — is the knowledge that if a player performs well when given a chance, he’s going to get a fair shake. It doesn’t matter whether he’s obscure or familiar, where he was drafted if he was drafted at all, or how much he — or the player presumed ahead of him on the depth chart — is paid. If you can play, you can stay.
The Bill Belichick-era Patriots base their roster decisions on merit and not pedigree. Building a roster based on merit may seem like common sense, but it’s really not that common of an occurrence. General managers worried about their job security — and that’s the vast majority of them — are loath to quickly concede a high-stakes, high-priced mistake. Think Vernon Gholston, the No. 6 pick in the 2008 NFL Draft who spent three seasons with the Jets, has been out of the league since 2012, and is still waiting to record his first sack.
There are other teams that occasionally operate similarly to the Patriots. The champion Broncos deciding to start inexperienced Trevor Siemian at quarterback is a fairly bold decision, at least until you remember his competition was Mark Sanchez. But no other franchise is as disciplined and consistent in refusing to allow name recognition and past accomplishment to determine who plays for their football team as the Patriots. Public perception too often matters more than it should, and politics can get in the way.
When it comes to roster-building, the Patriots don’t do politics. They do what’s best, even if it’s unpopular. Yet this approach is sometimes treated as a flaw, especially when the Patriots surprise us by choosing to move on from an accomplished player whom we perceived as a roster lock.
If you listen closely, you can still hear the echoes from years past when so many among us howled from the mountaintops about the decision to trade Logan Mankins, or Mike Vrabel, or Lawyer Milloy, or to let Wes Welker walk away in free agency. As fans, sometimes we forget how quickly skills can erode, or how much one blunt-force hit can change a career.
I’m sure some fans, perhaps those of the more casual variety, are frustrated that the Patriots cut Terrance Knighton on Monday, mostly because they’d heard of Terrance Knighton. He was nicknamed Pot Roast! How could they cut Pot Roast!? The decision to drop him is hardly a surprise to those paying attention — he didn’t see the field against Carolina last week in the third preseason game, an ominous sign regarding his status and standing if there ever was one.
But it does serve as a reminder that there will be unexpected cuts soon, if not Tuesday when rosters trim to 75, then certainly Saturday, when they must get down to 53 players. The Patriots have remarkable depth at the moment, especially on defense, and that means they will probably let go of some players who find work — and even success — elsewhere in the league. There could even be surprises after hitting the final 53. The Patriots always seem to find a player or two on the waiver wire to take a look at.
The job insecurity of well-known players shouldn’t be a bummer or a cause of frustration. (Hey, no one told you to buy that John Lynch jersey during 2008 training camp. That was your call.) Not only should it be a reason for further faith in this franchise, but it also often ends up being the source of a lot of fun. Just think of all of the helpful-and-beyond players who have come off the waiver wire, from deep on the depth chart or out of Central Nowhere University to help this team through the years.
Off the top of my head, there’s Rob Ninkovich, essential to the defense for so many years now after being discarded by the Saints as a long snapper in 2009 … and Dion Lewis, who jazzed up the running game last year … and seventh-round pick and combine snub Julian Edelman … and Malcolm Butler, who saved the Super Bowl within a calendar year of going undrafted … and the greatest example of all, Tom Brady, who took over for injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001 and ironically enough might be the only player of the Belichick era who gets to decide his own expiration date as a Patriot.
We didn’t know much about any of these guys when they got here. We’ll lament all of their departures when they leave. But in the case of everyone but Brady, arguably the greatest ever to play the position and the exception to every hard-and-fast Patriots rule, there will be room to be confident that Belichick is letting them go for one reason: He has something, or someone, better in mind. The fun is in discovering who it is. If they do their jobs, soon enough we’ll know their names, too.