WHEN asked why he chose New England, in spite of the freedom to sign with any other team, and despite the offer of a contract that cut $4 million off the salary he would’ve been paid had he stuck in Tampa Bay, Darrelle Revis cited the single factor that lured him to Foxborough.
“It’s basically about just winning, man,” the star cornerback said. “I weighed my options and I just wanted to win and I felt like this was the right place for me; to be a part of the Patriots organization.”
By Revis’ own count, the Patriots’ organization was one of 26 that reached out to him after the Buccaneers cut him loose last week. If winning was indeed his primary motivator in striking a new deal, he certainly picked a good spot. A gilded regime remains entrenched in New England, the team has won no fewer than 10 games in every season since 2002, and it has played for the conference championship each of the past three seasons.
Since Revis entered the league in 2007, the Pats have won 14 more games than any other franchise. He saw most of those through the prism of a division rival, having established himself with the Jets. So in the only NFL he’s known, even without a Super Bowl title in that span, the Patriots have been football’s preeminent winners.
But the reality is that, even with Revis aboard, New England is not the best place to win in 2014 — the one year that really matters to a player whose $20 million option is unlikely to be exercised for the second season of his agreement. The Pats are not the team to beat. Not in the league. Not in the conference.
Not yet, anyway.
The Patriots began the offseason at the very least chasing the Seahawks, obviously, and the Broncos, with the chasm between themselves and that team starting significantly wider than a 10-point margin in the AFC championship game would suggest, and then stretching even farther when Denver improved its defense at three important positions on the first day of free agency. Among Peyton Manning’s wealth of weapons, yes, they lost Erik Decker, a nice No. 2 receiver. But shortly thereafter they replaced him with Emmanuel Sanders, a nice No. 2 receiver.
Almost without question, assuming health cooperates, the Broncos of today are better than the Broncos who decisively pounded on the Patriots in January — and while New England has subsequently countered with a host of positive moves of its own, the aggregate of what Bill Belichick’s front office has done to this point isn’t enough to at this point say they’ve closed the gap between themselves and the conference’s best.
Revis is an upgrade over Aqib Talib, who defected to Denver, both in terms of durability and plain old ability. He has the talent to transform the defense in the way Talib did over the early part of last season, when he was healthy enough to be the lockdown corner the Broncos are now paying him to be.
Likewise, there’s a lot to like in the rest of the Patriots’ acquisitions and investments, too. Brandon Browner has to serve a four-game drug suspension, but he’s a big (6-foot-4) cornerback who loves to lay a lick, and upon his return he’ll bring an element to the defensive backfield that New England hasn’t had in a while.
On the other side of scrimmage, the re-signing of Julian Edelman at the team-friendly price of four years and $17 million provides the offense with a much-needed continuity, while the luring of the versatile Brandon LaFell adds options to the receiving corps. He’s 6-foot-2, and averages more than 14 yards per catch in his four-year career, but is shifty enough to play in the slot, as well. If Danny Amendola gets healthy, and if the rookies (particularly Aaron Dobson) can make progress as sophomores, Tom Brady’s passing game figures to have improved.
But put it all together and the Patriots still have plenty of work to do in this offseason if they want to give themselves the best chance of beating the Broncos — and maybe even the Seahawks, or the 49ers, or the Saints — next season.
They need to address the tight end position, with Rob Gronkowski likely to miss at least a portion of the campaign as he recovers from ACL reconstruction, and with no one yet found to fill the role vacated by Aaron Hernandez. They need to add depth at defensive end, where Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich were overworked last season, and could use the assistance of a pass-rushing specialist.
They need to resolve the Vince Wilfork situation, which more than likely means granting him his release unless he’s willing to restructure an agreement with one year still remaining. And if that’s the resolution, they could use another beefy veteran on the interior. They need to solidify themselves at safety, where the depth chart currently shows Duron Harmon as a starter next to Devin McCourty. They could stand to add some depth, preferably with speed, at linebacker.
That’s quite a list still to be satisfied. And until most of it is crossed off, it’ll be difficult to say the Patriots are poised to climb back atop the heap.
But, the thing is, there’s a ton of time to get it all done. The draft begins seven weeks from Thursday. There’s still more than four months until training camp begins. There’s almost six months until the regular season kicks off.
Everybody gets worked into such a frenzy by the start of free agency, it’s often forgotten that the process of putting a team together has just begun. It’s early yet. There are plenty of players still to be signed. Trades to be proposed. Draftees to be picked. Workouts to be considered. And decisions to be made.
To get a guy like Revis, yes, a team must act swiftly. Guys like him aren’t eminently available. But difference-makers are, if a team looks in the right places and makes the right evaluations — as the Patriots often do. And as Revis is trusting they will again, because, as he said, he wants to be a winner.
And winners aren’t crowned in the middle of March.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.