Letting Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner walk surprised some, but 15 years of history prove it's the Patriot Way.
The headline of the New England Patriots' offseason, if you're not including "Deflategate" of course, has to be their decision to decline expensive options on cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, while also cutting fellow corners Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard. A Super Bowl-winning team completely jettisoning their top-four covermen is unheard of, but given New England's history with paying cornerbacks, it should hardly be a surprise.
With Bill Belichick's 15-season sample size, it's pretty clear how the Patriots value cornerbacks in their system. Yes, they'll occasionally spend big money for a one-year deal on a cornerback in his prime, but they'll never give one a long-term, monster deal. And even when they do give an extension at the position, the player will almost assuredly be cut before the final year of it, if not sooner.
For the most part, the cornerbacks Belichick has gotten the most out of have either been on their rookie deals or free agents brought in for the veteran minimum.
Let's take a look back.
We begin in 2000 with Ty Law and Otis Smith. Law was already in the midst of a seven-year, $51 million deal he signed before Belichick arrived, while Smith, at age 34, was brought in on a veteran minimum deal. Smith would go on to start Super Bowl XXXVI with Law.
Law was the first example of how Belichick valued cornerbacks. In 2004, Law wanted another extension and the Patriots offered him $26 million over four years. Even today that would be the biggest contract extension the Patriots ever awarded to a corner.
Law called the offer an insult and countered with a seven-year deal worth $63 million, including a $20 million signing bonus.
Then-general manager Scott Pioli simply responded "We can't do that. Save the paper."
Law would play out 2004 and then be cut in '05 and sign with the Jets for an almost identical contract to his last, seven years, $50 million. He was released after just one year by the cap-strapped Jets and would then sign a five-year deal with the Chiefs worth $30 million. He would play just two seasons in Kansas City and continue to kick around until he retired after the 2009 season.
The Patriots replaced Law with 2003 fourth-round pick Asante Samuel, who was thrust into the starting lineup in '04, after injuries sidelined Law as well as 31-year-old Tyrone Poole, another veteran added at a minimum salary. Poole gave the Patriots an excellent year in 2003, as New England fielded one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Samuel led the NFL with 10 interceptions in 2006 in the final year of his rookie deal but the Pats didn't reward him with a long-term deal. Instead, they chose to use the Franchise Tag on Samuel, paying him $7.79 million before letting him walk in 2008 to sign a six-year, $56 million deal with the Eagles.
Samuel's partner at cornerback from 2005-07 was primarily Ellis Hobbs, a 2005 fourth-round pick, who would also start all 16 games in '08 after Samuel's departure. But once again the Patriots chose to discard a homegrown talent at cornerback rather than overpay or extend him, trading Hobbs in 2009 before the final year of his rookie deal to the Eagles for two fifth-round draft picks.
Hobbs was due to make $2.545 million in 2009, so moving him for two picks was a surprise, especially with a complete turnover coming at the position.
Forced to start over once again at the corner spot, the Pats loaded up in free agency and the draft, bringing in Leigh Bodden on a veteran one-year minimum, Shawn Springs on a three-year, $13 million deal, while also drafting Darius Butler and adding them to the mix with 2008 draft picks Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite.
Bodden had a breakthrough year and cashed in with the biggest contract extension the Patriots had ever awarded to a cornerback at four years, $20 million, with $10 million guaranteed. This came back to bite the team, as Bodden missed all of 2010 with a shoulder injury and would return in '11 only to be cut midseason.
At the same time, the aforementioned Arrington was emerging from the ranks of an undrafted unknown into a stalwart both on defense and special teams. While overmatched against tall outside receivers, Arrington was one of the best slot corners in the league. In 2011, he led the NFL in interceptions with seven.
After being signed to the practice squad midseason of 2009, Arrington became a full-time starter in '10 and would go on to play in 66 games over the next five seasons, including 56 starts.
In 2013, Arrington signed a four-year contract extension worth $16 million with $7.5 million guaranteed. Slightly less than Bodden, but still one of the most significant contracts the Pats had ever given a cornerback. But Arrington would never see the end of that deal, being cut loose with two years remaining before signing with the Ravens this offseason.
The Patriots traded for Aqib Talib in 2012 and got a couple shutdown games and a couple injuries out of him, and once again, instead of giving a (somewhat) shutdown corner in his prime a long-term, monster deal, they settled on just a one-year deal worth $4.86 million.
That brings us to Revis and Browner, who were both signed in 2014 on what were essentially one-year deals with team options for additional seasons. Revis got $12 million for his one season, the highest total paid for one season to a cornerback under Belichick. Browner made $2.95 million, but his option would've paid him $4.6 million this season.
Given the Patriots' history at the cornerback position, it shouldn't be a surprise the Pats weren't going to give Revis anywhere close to the monster deal he got from the Jets which will pay him $16 million this season alone.
Bill Belichick is certainly willing to spend a bit more for a single season from a good cornerback, but they're not interested in long-term expensive contracts. Bodden and Springs both never lived up to the contracts they received, while Arrington and Hobbs were cut even before their deals were up.
In many ways, 2015 is reminiscent of '09, when the Patriots were in full do-over mode at cornerback. They responded by bringing in a number of veterans to complement their young draft picks, and despite how 2009 is generally seen as the worst season of Bill Belichick's Patriots tenure, the pass defense was still middle of the pack that year at 16th overall in Football Outsiders' DVOA.
The answers are not apparent right now. No one knew Bodden would have a breakout year in 2009 after an unspectacular year in Detroit. The Patriots have certainly taken plenty of shots on castoff defensive backs who have not worked out. Players like Duane Starks and Fernando Bryant never broke out like Bodden, Smith or Poole did.
Who knows which path current cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher or Robert McClain will follow, or if Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan or Darryl Roberts will become the next Samuel, Hobbs or Arrington.
But the Patriots' methodology has been consistent over the last 15 years, relying on young players on rookie deals, veterans on minimum deals, or the occasional one-year hired gun on a big contract.
Expensive long-term contracts on cornerbacks just aren't their thing.