Friday, March 05, 2010

Two NC Sports clients among best free agent signings

By Christopher Price

March 5, 2010

With free agency set to begin Friday and the Patriots facing a number of key personnel decisions, we’re going to take a look at the best and worst of Bill Belichick’s forays into free agency with the Patriots. Yesterday, we looked at the five worst signings of the Bill Belichick Era. Today, here are the five best:

5. Defensive lineman Anthony Pleasant — signed as an unrestricted free agent on March 22, 2001

In the year following Belichick and Scott Pioli’s arrival in New England, they signed a ton of free agents, but few are more representative of the change in culture in New England — at least in the early days — than the arrival of Pleasant in Foxborough.

Pleasant, who was a part of the Patriots from 2001 through 2003 before he retired, gets a spot on this list for three reasons: One, he was a Belichick veteran from way back, having played for him in Cleveland (from 1991 through 1995) and New York (1998-99), and the fact that he had an extensive background with the coach made Belichick’s transition easier at the beginning of his head coaching career in New England.

Second, in his he was responsible for raising an entire generation of young Patriots defensive linemen, including Richard Seymour and Ty Warren, both of whom still refer to AP in reverential tones. In fact, in his three seasons in New England, few players were more respected in the locker room than Pleasant, who gave a memorable pregame speech before the 2002 finale against Miami where he compared Tom Brady to Moses.

And third, he was a pretty good defensive lineman — in 2001, he started all 16 regular season games on the defensive line and registered 43 tackles (35 solos), six sacks, two interceptions and forced one fumble. He also finished tied for second with Willie McGinest on the team with six sacks.

4. Running back Antowain Smith — signed by the Patriots on June 7, 2001
In the early days of the Belichick Era, the Patriots found a ton of low-cost free agents on the defensive side of the ball like Pleasant, Roman Phifer, Mike Vrabel, Bobby Hamilton and Otis Smith. But they also did well finding talent on the offensive side of the ball as well, with guys like Antowain Smith and David Patten.

The running back out of Houston, who was a salary dump by the Bills after the 2000 season, ended up starting 15 of 16 regular season games at running back in 2001 and led the Patriots (and ranked sixth in the AFC) with 1,157 yards rushing. He had a good postseason, capped off by a 92-yard effort in Super Bowl XXXVI.

He played another two seasons in New England, adding another 1,624 rushing yards and another Super Bowl ring. He bounced around the league for two seasons after leaving the Patriots, but never achieved the same level of success he had in New England.

3. Linebacker Rosevelt Colvin — signed by the Patriots as an unrestricted free agent on March 11, 2003

Prior to Colvin’s signing, the popular belief was that New England was unwilling to shell out big bucks in pursuit of elite free agents. But after a visit to Foxborough, it didn’t take long for Colvin to sign with the Patriots. (Of course, Belichick’s interest in Colvin should have been clear fromthis press conference, which the Patriots’ head coach gave in 2002 days before a game against Colvin and the Bears.)

Contracts are all relative, but despite a pair of season-ending injuries (2003 and 2007), no big ticket free agent has had a better overall career in New England than Colvin. A hip injury in the Week 2 win over the Eagles left him sidelined for the rest of the 2003 season and a foot injury sustained in November 2007 prematurely ended that campaign for him, but he was a pass-rushing presence for most of the rest of his career with the Patriots, finishing with 20.5 sacks from 2004 through 2006 (with a high of 8.5 in 2006).

Colvin was released by the Patriots in early 2008. He had a brief stint with the Texans in 2008, spending two-plus months with Houston before getting cut and returning to New England for a second time at the end of the 2008 season. He finished with 26.5 sacks in six seasons in New England.

2. Linebacker Mike Vrabel — signed by the Patriots as an unrestricted free agent on March 16, 2001

It’s important to remember how far out of left field Vrabel came: He was considering law school before Belichick gave him a call. But Vrabel remains one of the greatest examples of the strength of New England’s personnel department in the early stages of the 21st century — finding players who fit their system. A third-round pick of the Steelers in 1997, Vrabel was washing out in Pittsburgh — he was sitting behind several other linebackers, relegated to working as a pass-rushing specialist and and special teams duty throughout the first four years of his career. (His biggest achievement may have been sacking Drew Bledsoe and forcing a fumble with less than two minutes left in a 1997 playoff game against the Patriots.)

There was relatively little fanfare in his arrival in New England, but it was soon clear that Vrabel fit perfectly into the Patriots defense at outside linebacker, ending up as a defensive cornerstone on a team that won three Super Bowl titles. In eight years in New England, Vrabel had 48 sacks, including 12.5 in 2007. Almost as importantly, he helped set the tone in the locker room, helping create a businesslike atmosphere that provided guidance for many of the younger players.

1. Safety Rodney Harrison — signed as veteran free agent on March 12, 2003
In the early days of the 21st century, the Patriots had a very good team, but it took the arrival of Harrison to make them truly great. He may not have been around for Super Bowl XXXVI, but no single free agent had a greater impact on the franchise in the ensuing seasons than Harrison.

Harrison arrived in New England after a 2002 season that saw the Patriots get away from their mission statement: “We are building a big, strong, fast, smart, tough, and disciplined football team that consistently competes for championships.” Harrison wasn’t afraid of knocking anyone on their ass — he mixed it up with Tom Brady, Troy Brown and Kevin Faulk in his first few weeks of training camp, and delivered a high-intensity dose of attitude to a team that had started to believe its own press clippings.

Harrison had great numbers, but his greatest worth can be seen in a small slice of footage from an NFL Films highlight package from the 2003 AFC Championship Game where Belichick and Harrison embrace. Belichick then adds, “Am I glad we got you.”

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