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An exodus from New England

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An exodus from New England (AP photo collage by edge designer Hal Meyers)

Patriots say so long to some free agent talents

The run of success experienced by the New England Patriots in the 21st century has been unprecedented in NFL history. For nearly two decades, this team has been at or near the top of the standings; in a league designed for parity, they’ve been a consistent championship contender.

Part of the reason for that success has been a general willingness on the part of players to make personal sacrifices – namely financial ones – for the betterment of the team. Many of the team’s best players have taken less money to stay in New England, secure in the knowledge that they would always be in the mix for a Super Bowl ring.

But that appears to be changing.

Coach Bill Belichick, the ultimate arbiter in all personnel matters for the Patriots, has never been what you’d call sentimental. He’s always proven unafraid to dispatch a player a year or two too early or to let a free agent go if his price was a number Belichick considered to be too high.

However, even after a season that saw the Patriots just miss winning their sixth Super Bowl, it looks like the days of hometown discounts have come to an end. Four prominent members of the team have left for greener pastures, a talent drain that may be indicative of a change in attitude regarding the fabled Patriot Way.

Nate Solder, offensive tackle – four years, $62 million (New York Giants)

This is probably the biggest, most impactful loss of the bunch. Solder has been a mainstay on the New England line ever since he was drafted in the first round back in 2011. He has played a huge part in protecting Tom Brady since his arrival and is generally considered one of the better left tackles in the NFL. It’s mildly surprising that the Patriots didn’t push harder to retain him, but the truth is that Solder was never going to get this kind of money from the Pats – particularly when you look at the guaranteed cash (nearly $35 million). All of these departures matter, but finding someone new to guard Brady’s blind side will be particularly difficult. And when your QB is over 40, protection is paramount.

Malcolm Butler, defensive back – five years, $61 million (Tennessee Titans)

Yes, yes – he didn’t play in the Super Bowl. We’ll probably never know why. And yes, he looked like he might have lost a step this past season. None of that changes the fact that Butler is still one of the more gifted cornerbacks in the league. Considering the fallout surrounding him, it’s clear that he was never going to come back, so this departure comes as no surprise. The number, however, does a little – that’s a BIG contract for a corner who has flashed some inconsistency. That $30 million guarantee is particularly high. Still, he’s an undeniable talent – one who will almost certainly be playing with a chip on his shoulder. It’s a shame that Butler’s departure was so acrimonious, but ultimately, he looks to be set up for success.

Dion Lewis, running back – four years, $23 million (Tennessee Titans)

This is another unfortunate but not unexpected move. Lewis had a great year for New England, serving as the primary backfield option down the stretch and putting up some great numbers – no one rushed for more yards in the second half and he led the league in yards per carry among backs with at least 150 carries. However, he’s also got an injury history and might not have the size to hold up as a feature back for an entire season. That said, it’s hard to argue with the numbers – the Patriots simply didn’t lose when he was on the field, dropping just four of the 36 games in which he appeared. That means something – just not enough for Belichick and company to cough up the cash to keep him around.

Danny Amendola, wide receiver – two years, $12 million (Miami Dolphins)

This last one seems somewhat surprising, if only because Amendola had that long-term Patriot vibe about him. On the other hand, Tom Brady has helped a lot of above-average slot receivers get paid like stars. This isn’t quite that - $6 million a year seems like market rate for a slot guy like Amendola – but it’s still more than he was going to get in New England. Nowhere is the “next man up” attitude more prominent than in the receiving corps; Belichick clearly believes he can make up that production elsewhere. And with Julian Edelman returning from injury, Amendola was rendered somewhat expendable. It’s for the best, though – if he fills the Jarvis Landry role here, he might catch 90-100 balls this season.

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