"I don’t think you can be afraid of free agency."

By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Bill Belichick is as shrewd as any GM in football when it comes to maneuvering around the salary cap and consistently fielding a winning team under it. He’s also as fearless as they come with letting talented players go via free agency.

With one of the biggest, most important groups of free agents in his Patriots tenure on the horizon, Belichick is amazingly still not blinking.

Besides the suddenly-interesting situation at quarterback with Jimmy Garoppolo hitting free agency after the 2017 season, the Patriots also have cornerback Malcolm Butler, linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, and defensive end Jabaal Sheard all without contract extensions and set to hit free agency after 2016. Butler would be a restricted free agent, while the others would be of the unrestricted variety.

Still, Belichick is not going to be afraid to let his players become free agents. He’s brought them back before.

Patriots Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Malcolm Butler. (Photos by Getty Images)

The Patriots’ Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Malcolm Butler (L-R) are all set to become free agents. (Photos by Getty Images)

“Sometimes if you can work out a contract, which we’ve done that during the season with various players, if you can work that out you work it out,” said Belichick when asked if the players’ contract situations factor in at all to the day-to-day process. “If you can’t then there have been a number of players that we’ve signed – our players – that we’ve signed once free agency has started. Devin [McCourty] to pick a name.

“I mean I don’t think you can be afraid of free agency. It’s not like if a guy gets to free agency you can’t re-sign him. You’re in a competitive market but you’re in a competitive market anyway.”

Belichick added that he’s well aware of the many options free agents can have and that there’s “only so much money to go around.” Even if the Patriots can find a way to work around salary cap restrictions, the Krafts inevitably have limits on how much real money they can spend – which is no different from any other ownership group, even outside of football.

“That’s professional sports,” said Belichick.” I don’t think it’s anything like we’re revolutionary, like it’s any different than any other pro team, pro football team, or any pro team period. I mean you see the same thing in all of the other sports.”

Bill Belichick, prior to kickoff in Arizona (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Bill Belichick, prior to kickoff in Arizona (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

That all sounds like a long way of saying, “We probably can’t re-sign all of these guys.” Which is OK … it will be incredibly difficult to sign everyone out of Butler, Hightower, Collins, and Sheard long-term, especially if they all seek fair market value for their positions. But if any head coach could let them walk and find suitable replacements, it’s Belichick.

When pressed on whether he’s ever had distractions within the team or if players have suffered because of the pressure of working out their contracts. Belichick doesn’t feel it’s any different with his team than in any other profession.

“I mean look, we all have things in our life to deal with,” said Belichick. “We all have families, we all have personal situations. I mean you leave your job; you go do other things, too. We all do that. That’s part of life. You can’t get around it. I mean I don’t know if they’re distractions. It’s part of your life.”

It remains anyone’s guess as to how Belichick and the Patriots will approach their pending free agents, who they will sign first, and who they will end up trading or letting walk via free agency. As Belichick made clear on Friday, it’s a difficult process and one that can – and probably will – come with significant losses.

Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.


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