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Patriots Find Their Find In LaFell

Friday, March 21, 2014

 

The New England Patriots’ offseason has unfolded like one of those new Savers Thrift Shop commercials where the woman rummages through an entire rack of useless garbage until she stumbles upon the steal of the century, a cute, green tank top otherwise known as “the find.”

While everyone was else was busy dumping millions upon millions of guaranteed dollars on the biggest, brightest names on the market, the Patriots found their find in the bargain aisle when they signed undervalued wide receiver Brandon LaFell to a three-year, $9-million contract.

The 6-foot-3 LaFell is hardly a thrift shop hand-me-down, but when you consider some of the deals handed out to second-tier receivers – five years, $31 million for Golden Tate, who’s only caught more than 50 passes once in four years, and three years, $12 million for Dexter McCluster, more or less a return man with marginal value offensively – a $9-million deal with only $3 million in guaranteed money for a 27-year-old receiver with untapped potential might be the steal of this free-agent class.

Other than the five-year, $36.25 million contract Eric Decker signed with the Jets, the Tate deal in Detroit is the most eye-popping, especially considering Tate and LaFell have posted similar numbers through the first four years of their career. Tate has caught 165 passes for 2,195 yards and 15 touchdowns while LaFell has a slash line of 167/2,385/13. And LaFell is a bigger target compared to Tate’s 5-foot-10, 202-pound frame.

LaFell’s former teammate Steve Smith, the clear-cut No. 1 in Carolina during their time together, signed a similar cap-friendly deal with Baltimore for three years and $11 million, but he’s 35. Change of scenery aside, he’ll never be better than he was during his prime in Carolina between 2005 and 2008 when he averaged more than a 1,000 yards per year.

Having played in Smith’s shadow for four years, including three with a quarterback (Cam Newton) who’d prefer to tuck the ball and run rather than air it out, LaFell appears primed for a breakthrough season with Tom Brady as his quarterback. The opportunity to line up alongside a future Hall of Famer is the reason he accepted New England’s offer.
Though not spectacular, LaFall’s numbers in Carolina were consistent; he caught between 38 and 49 passes each year as arguably the most undervalued piece of the Panthers’ offensive puzzle, and his touchdowns increased each year as he and Newton developed more camaraderie. Last season, LaFall posted career highs with 49 catches, five touchdowns and 679 yards.

This was not a panic move after missing out on the likes of Decker, Tate, or any other high-profile player on the market. While the Broncos were busy swiping Aqib Talib from New England and adding more defense by signing DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward, which elicited a typical knee-jerk reaction from a certain faction of the New England fan base, the Patriots reached out to LaFell on the first day of the free-agency signing period. He was their guy from the start.

The fans demanded a roster overhaul, much like what Denver has done this offseason (a spending-spree that includes the recent signing of wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders), but the Patriots have found a way to load up without putting too much stress on the salary cap in future years, even if we all know the cap can be manipulated in a number of ways.

There’s really no precedent for the LaFell signing during the Bill Belichick era. If you think back to the best free-agent acquisitions of the past 14 years, most of them were either players at the tail end of their careers with a relatively short, but productive, shelf-life in New England (Rodney Harrison, Anthony Pleasant, Roman Phifer, Bryan Cox), big-money players with equally-big contracts (Rosevelt Colvin) or castoffs from other teams who flourished in Belichick’s system (Larry Izzo, Mike Vrabel, Antowain Smith). 

LaFell is unique in that he’s still in his prime – or perhaps has yet to reach it – yet isn’t costing the Patriots the kind of money other teams dropped on Decker, Tate or McCluster despite the fact he has every bit a chance of being as valuable as those players, if not more. The Patriots have made mistakes investing in players on the brink of stardom in the past (Shawn Springs, Monty Beisel and Adalius Thomas immediately come to mind), but LaFell’s relative anonymity in Carolina was more circumstantial than anything else, a byproduct of playing alongside a quarterback still experiencing growing pains as he enters his fourth NFL season.

The offseason appeared headed for an iceberg after the first 48 hours of free agency once Denver was done assembling its Justice League roster, but the Patriots might’ve closed the gap with a more tactical approach to their team-building referendum. Some might cry “cheapskate!” but if someone with LaFell’s potential is willing to play for a base salary of $800,000 next year, it’s hard to make the case for throwing an $8-million signing bonus and an additional $4 or $5 million in guaranteed base salary at someone with similar credentials such as Tate.

Looking at the rest of their acquisitions, it’s obvious the Patriots are willing to spend when necessary. They gave Darrelle Revis $12 million for just one season and $17 million over three years for Brandon Browner in hopes that the two will revitalize the secondary. In the end, the real find is LaFell, a department-store talent at a thrift-shop price with unlimited potential.

 

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