Patriots Slowly Signing Their Own

Despite losing a couple of their free agents, the Patriots continue to sign key contributors from last year.

This has been an interesting winter thus far for the Patriots in the sense that they've done a great job keeping their own house in order without making much of an impact on the free-agent market outside of New England.

First, they took care of the biggest need by re-signing Vince Wilfork at the start of the free-agency signing period. Next up, they brought back guard Stephen Neal, who once considered retirement, and also re-upped with running back Kevin Faulk, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain and cornerback Leigh Bodden.

These moves aren't coincidental. The four players who were quickly re-signed were among the top performers in a season that ended in disappointment and shock with a playoff loss to Baltimore.

Wilfork's impact is obvious. The burly nose tackle is now the highest-paid player at his position and rightfully so. Few players in the league can dominant like Wilfork at the line of scrimmage and he's been the anchor of New England's 3-4 defense for the past six years. With him under contract, the Patriots have their foundation set. Now they need to build around him.

Banta-Cain isn't one of the top linebackers in the league, nor is he as feared a pass rusher as some of the players the Patriots have had in the past, but he was the best they had last season, which warrants another year. Though he's only a temporary replacement, Banta-Cain knows the system, as evident by his performance in 2009 despite spending a few years away from the year. The Patriots need him to help take some pressure of Adalius Thomas, who's been uninspiring on the opposite side of the line.

Bodden added some stability to the secondary last year, albeit not in the same mold as Asante Samuel once did. The Patriots still haven't replaced Samuel, but Bodden can be a nice fit if they find a legit starter on the free-agent market, or perhaps in the draft. Bodden also has the flexibility to play on both sides or work in sub-defense packages.

Much like Wilfork, Faulk has an obvious role and has been doing it well for years. The veteran running back provides valuable depth and is versatile enough to catch passes out of the backfield. He's not the long-term solution the Patriots need, but he can take over a game on any given Sunday and his leadership in the locker room is underrated.

The Patriots realized last year that leadership can't be understated. They lost Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison, two key leaders from the Super Bowl years, and traded Mike Vrabel to Kansas City. Without them, the team appeared to lack guidance at times.

This is why it's important to keep veterans on board -- especially productive ones such as Wilfork and Faulk, who serve a valuable purpose both on and off the field. A mass overhaul of the lineup won't do anybody any good. Having too many players learned a new system can set the team back weeks and the veterans don't feel the same cohesiveness with that many new faces in the locker room.

What the Patriots have done successfully this offseason is make sure the key parts are locked in place while looking for a few extra bodies to snag off the market. There's plenty of time left, even if some of the big names have been scooped up already. At least now they know who they can build around. The next step is to start building.

NOTES:
--RB Kevin Faulk's one-year deal was a no-brainer, according to his agent. Faulk drew some attention from other teams, but his agent Raymond Brothers told the Boston Globe, "it wasn't even close." Faulk has been with the team since the start of his career and will likely retire a Patriot.

--NT Vince Wilfork is relatively easy to please. With his new signing bonus, Wilfork says he won't spend on anything luxurious, except for a house he plans to build in Florida. "I'm not a big flashy guy. I got my truck. I'm just a normal dude. I don't need to go out and buy a Bentley or a Ferrari. And even though I love to fish, it doesn't make sense to buy a boat now, because I can't enjoy it. I'm fine."

--LB Tully Banta-Cain's three-year contract includes a $6 million signing bonus and base salaries that escalate from $800,000 next season to $3.8 million during his final year. Obviously, the upfront bonus is the key, but he also has workout and incentive clauses that could land him another $1.7 million per year.

--The Patriots made a minor deal last week by signing free agent LB Marques Murrell, a former undrafted free agent from Appalachian State. Murrell has some experience on special teams with the Jets, but not much as a regular defender. His older brother is former NFL running back Adrian Murrell. The only role he'd fill on this team is as a specialist, barring an exceptional camp.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm not the type of person that likes to go back-and-forth, so I was just like, 'When's it going to be over?'" -- NT Vince Wilfork on his offseason contract negotiations with the Patriots.


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