If you can’t beat them, join them.
Over the last 17 years, no team has dominated the world of roster building like the New England Patriots. Just look at their moves over the last week or so, and you’ll see they’ve managed to push the team to level above the group who just won a Super Bowl.
The secret to the Patriots’ long-time success is having the genius of Bill Belichick run virtually every aspect of you football operations. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, there is only one Bill Belichick.
However, there are two teams who have cut from the Belichick front-office tree to get their general managers in the last 14 months and it’s beginning to pay off.
In January 2016, former Patriots director of pro scouting Bob Quinn and director of college scouting Jon Robinson were hired as the general managers of the Detroit Lions and Tennessee Titans, respectively. Just over a year later, both Belichick disciples are starting to show how much they learned from their time in Foxboro.
Robinson kicked things off with a bang last spring, trading the first overall pick to the Los Angeles Rams for a truck load of draft assets – a staple of New England’s draft strategy. He then used another Patriots approach as Robinson spent the Titans’ first three picks reinforcing the line of scrimmage with offensive tackle Jack Conklin, pass rusher Kevin Dodd, and defensive tackle Austin Johnson. His plan seemed to work out, as the Titans were named Pro Football Focus‘ Offensive Line of the Year.
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After helping the Titans to their first winning record since 2011, Robinson has been quiet but effective so far in free agency. He let failed first-round picks Chance Warmack and Kendall Wright walk out the door. Despite having the sixth-most cap space heading into free agency, the Titans didn’t jump to overpay big name players, instead scooping up some second tier players on affordable contracts.
Formidable in-the-box safety Johnathan Cyprien was added from the Jacksonville Jaguars on a four-year contract that will pay him an annual average salary of $6.25 million per season, but carries on $9 million guaranteed. Cyprien has recorded over 100 tackles in each of his first four seasons and should be a consistent starter, though there is little flash to his game.
Robinson also signed a player whose skills he should be familiar with in former Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan. The 26-year-old was the third-best cornerback on the market, but didn’t require a bank-breaking contract like Stephon Gilmore or A.J. Bouye. Ryan comes in on a three-year, $30-million deal to play opposite of Jason McCourty, the twin brother of New England safety Devin McCourty.
In a very under-the-radar move, Robinson signed former first-round nose tackle Sylvester Williams to a three-year contract on Friday (the money has yet to be reported, which likely means it is not a lot). Bringing in former highly-touted players to try resurrecting their careers is the ultimate Patriots move.
While the Titans seem to be on the right track with Robinson at the helm, Quinn was able to get the Lions into the playoffs in their first season without Calvin Johnson and has showed plenty of similarities to the ways of his former club.
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Like Robinson, Quinn placed a priority of making his offensive and defensive lines a strength in Detroit. The Lions used four of their first five picks in the 2016 draft on linemen, landing a starting left tackle in Taylor Decker and a first-string defensive tackle in A’Shawn Robinson. The Lions also brought in a few former Patriots last offseason, signing safety Tavon Wilson and trading for linebacker Jon Bostic, to help foster the new culture.
In his biggest move so far this March, Quinn upgraded at offensive tackle, signing Rick Wagner to replace Riley Reiff, who left for the Minnesota Vikings in free agency. He fortified his defensive line with underrated big men Akeem Spence and Cornelius Washington, both on deals worth just $3 million per season.
Quinn took the same page out of Belichick’s book as Robinson, signing former 12th-overall pick DJ Hayden to a one-year contract, giving the borderline bust a shot at resuscitating his career starting opposite Darius Slay at cornerback.
With plenty of affordable free agents still on the market and the draft still to come, look for Quinn and Robinson to continue making moves that resemble the Patriots strategy – but, of course, expect Belichick to be a few steps ahead of the competition.
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