Why judging Patriots' moves early in free agency misses mark

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots have taken some tough blows early in free agency, which has sparked a question about the team's approach. What is going on in Foxborough?

The answer is the same as it has always been: Bill Belichick and his staff are in the process of building a team they hope will compete for a Super Bowl championship in 2018, and in doing so, there are always some tough decisions. Belichick & Co. don't always make the right ones -- they had some real head-scratchers in 2017 -- but the overall 18-year track record is darn good.

Still, over the past 48 hours, the extreme negative reaction to what has unfolded in some circles has been hard to miss. It is the opposite of where things stood at this point last year when Belichick was "loading up" with an aggressive free-agent approach to take advantage of the final stretch of Tom Brady's career, sparking media-based chatter of an undefeated season.

That ended after one game, highlighting how off-base many were at the time.

Despite that recent history, here we go again, but in the other direction. The Patriots aren't doing anything! Does anyone still want to play here?

Crazy talk.

Some of the best insight on this general dynamic previously came from two general managers -- one from the Patriots' tree, and one longtime rival -- and is timely to revisit now.

Former Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli once said that his goal was never to win March, but to build a team that would be able to win in February. His point was that what happens in March is one small piece to the 12-month, ever-evolving process of putting together a team.

Think about that from a Patriots perspective.

Two of the players leaving in free agency for big-bucks contracts -- cornerback Malcolm Butler and running back Dion Lewis -- were at the bottom of the NFL barrel when signed May 19, 2014, and Feb. 6, 2015, respectively.

The Patriots did a great job identifying those players, cultivating them in their system, and the players themselves also deserve a ton of credit for maximizing their opportunity.

That is a significant part of building a team.

Who will those players be this season for the Patriots? Some might already be on the roster, like 2015 fourth-round pick Trey Flowers was at this time in 2016 when few were expecting much from him after playing four total snaps as a rookie. Now he's a core player.

Others might be coming from the draft, where the Patriots will benefit from having more picks than they did last year (four), allowing them to infuse much-needed youth onto their roster and cheap dollars on their salary cap.

This year-round process seems easily forgotten over the first few days of free agency, when a team's activity, or lack of it, is judged in a keyhole.

Again, think about this from a Patriots perspective.

They've lost offensive tackle Nate Solder, wide receiver Danny Amendola, Lewis and Butler -- with all signing extremely lucrative deals with their new teams -- and all they've done is re-sign running back Rex Burkhead and special teamers Nate Ebner and Brandon King.

By any objective measure, that's more talent heading out the door than coming in -- which will happen to every team at some point at the start of free agency (e.g. check out what's been unfolding in Seattle this year). But for those questioning if anyone still wants to play for the Patriots, they are inexplicably overlooking that the club signed three important players to extensions last year who also could have otherwise departed this offseason as free agents.

One of those players, quasi-Super Bowl LI MVP running back James White, extended his deal through 2020 and said at the time, "I'm happy to still be here. I'm happy to have more opportunity to be with this team."

Another player, starting center David Andrews, signed an extension through 2020 and had said, "I'm so grateful to be on a team like this where winning is the only thing that matters."

Finally, linebacker Kyle Van Noy signed an extension through 2019 and said, "Obviously it's always good to get into a situation where a team wants you and believe[s] in you. I'm just honored ... really, really blessed."

This serves up a reminder of something longtime Patriots nemesis Bill Polian said he noticed in his transition from Colts president to ESPN analyst: There is a disconnect in how the media often analyzes the way a team is built (they generally judge the present snapshot) compared to team executives actually doing the team-building (they look at it more from the perspective of an evolving process).

So as the Patriots visit with some free agents on Thursday -- linebacker Jonathan Casillas (first reported by NFL Network) and tight end Asante Cleveland (first reported by Boston Globe) among them -- that contrast once again comes to the forefront.

Players like Casillas and Cleveland won't come close to moving the needle. But the Patriots have 63 players on their 90-man roster, which means there are 27 spots to fill and Belichick and his staff would be negligent not to maximize the opportunity to do so while maintaining a healthy salary-cap standing.

In doing so, maybe they find the next Lewis, or Butler. Or maybe they simply build all-important depth that could help in an unexpected pinch in the future.

This is the same thing the Patriots have always done under Belichick, with varied results.

Last year, despite complimentary offseason headlines, wasn't their best.

And that, in and of itself, should be a great reminder to many right now.