Saturday, March 03, 2007

Case Study at LB

On the opening day of the NFL season, Adalius Thomas will be three weeks past his 30th birthday. That'll make Thomas barely legal to play linebacker for Bill Belichick.

The Patriots' signing of perhaps the biggest name (also budget) free agent on the market should surprise only those who haven't paid attention to the franchise's MO during the Belichick years. The boss always says teams should try to get younger whenever possible, and he means it-except when it comes to linebackers. Belichick likes them seasoned, well-seasoned. In point of fact, Junior Seau was the ideal LB pick-up for the Pats. He came out of retirement.

Belichick has no qualms playing rookies on his offensive line or in his secondary, two areas where most clubs prefer veterans. But the Pats seldom dress, let alone play, linebackers without considerable experience. Even the 'backers who play almost exclusively on special teams, like Larry Izzo and Don Davis, have been around the block more than twice or thrice.

But doesn't Thomas' contract violate the Pats' "rule" not to break the bank for free agents, or even their own veterans? It would if any such rule existed, but none does. Your truly has heard Belichick make the same point time and again: there are plenty of NFL players worth every nickel of a megacontract. It's just there are more that aren't. The Pats have a more stringent definition of who's worth the top bucks than other franchises, but aside from the Redskins, it's a difference in degree only, say 10-15 percent more rigorous.

Thomas isn't just a free agent, he's an IPO in a market primed to boom. NFL money managers have millions in extra cap cash sloshing around their budgets and a need to show performance (wins) to their customers. The trick with IPOs, of course, is to get in on the ground floor before the stampede sends prices to ludicrous heights. If Nate Clements got an 8 year,-$80 million, $22 million guaranteed deal from the 49ers, then the proper time to sign Thomas was yesterday.

When it comes to assembling talent, the only "rule" the Pats have is the best one-there are no rules. Those who maintain otherwise prefer a simpleminded myth over simple reality.


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