The New England Patriots approached free agency with more determination than any defending champion in recent memory, executing a number of high-profile trades and signing one of the two best cornerbacks on the market to a long-term deal. The flurry of activity wasn’t necessarily a paradigm shift in New England’s team-building approach, but rather an unconventional example of Bill Belichick’s modus operandi.
For all of his success - five Super Bowl titles, numerous Coach of the Year honors and certainly a spot in the Hall of Fame - Belichick has adopted essentially the same, systematic approach for the duration of his career; find players who can replace the players who departed.
Which brings us to this: are the Patriots better right now than they were two months ago?
Kony Ealy, Dwayne Allen and Stephon Gilmore, as a group, are probably not as talented as Jabaal Sheard, Martellus Bennett and Logan Ryan, but they are just as serviceable. Remember, the Patriots went 14-2 in 2016—there isn’t much room to “improve” a 14-2 roster. And if adding the aforementioned fill-ins wasn’t enough, the Patriots are still favored to re-sign star linebacker Donta Hightower and acquired Brandin Cooks from the Saints without having to part ways with Malcolm Butler.
So, while it’s probably too early to determine if New England is actually better than they were two months ago, it is safe to say that they definitely aren’t in worse shape. For this reason, New England is still very much the best team in the AFC by a fairly considerable margin.
The Steelers, who might be the AFC’s second-best team, did not fare as well as their rivals in free agency. Signing Hightower (he is reported to be visiting Pittsburgh Monday night or Tuesday afternoon, barring weather) would obviously be a major transaction for the Steelers, but for now, they have instead focused on retaining homegrown talent.
None of this is to say that both approaches don’t work—they could, and they have. The Patriots have been very aggressive in surrounding Tom Brady with championship-caliber talent, including mercenaries and rental players (Bennett and Darrelle Revis certainly qualify, as could Cooks, who has just two years remaining on his current deal), and they have two Super Bowls since 2015 to show for it.
The Steelers, on the other hand, have made a number of prudent moves to safeguard their long-term vitality (signing Antonio Brown to an extension, for instance). Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier would command hefty extensions next offseason, as will Le’Veon Bell, if he plays 2017 under the franchise tag. Retaining players of this caliber gives Pittsburgh plenty of flexibility when it comes to free agency, and rarely compels them to commit large chunks of cap space to hired guns. When they do, though, it generally works out pretty well, with Mike Mitchell and DeAngelo Williams representing perhaps the best success stories.
However, the AFC, as per usual, will run through New England, who has long been Pittsburgh’s most insurmountable foe. Maybe to defeat the Patriots on the field, the Steelers will need to borrow some of the team-building strategies that have facilitated New England’s success.
Consider this: Pittsburgh’s championship window might not be much wider than New England’s. Ben Roethlisberger has already mentioned retirement, while Brady has never looked better at age 39. It would be interesting to see how the Roethlisberger-led Steelers would perform in the AFC without a Brady-led Patriots team, but such a reality is far from assured. Even if Brady does only have two or three seasons left and Roethlisberger has another five, do the Steelers really want the late stages of Roethlisberger’s career to be defined by losses to the Patriots?
My dream for the Steelers is for them to be a little more aggressive this offseason. Don’t let Hightower sign elsewhere. Make some kind of crazy, off-the-wall trade. Make a move in the draft. Something different. Pittsburgh is already a fantastic team, but maybe one more move puts them over the top, even if it is a little unconventional.