Acquiring talent in the middle of an NFL season consistently proves to be more difficult than any of the other Big Four sports leagues in North America, but the Patriots' ability to land key players in that period has continually contributed to the franchise's success over the last 16 years.
One of the many things that have separated the New England Patriots from the rest of the pack is its ability to find players available after cutdown day in September and before the postseason begins in January. Not every trade or signing has resulted in a Super Bowl, but between marquee names and previously unknown role players, Bill Belichick almost always seems to bring in a player to help the roster that was nowhere to be found in Week 1.
This year’s best example: linebacker James Harrison, a 15-year veteran and two-time Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Harrison had two garbage time sacks in his debut against the New York Jets in Week 17, but has proven to be a worthy acquisition in each of New England’s first two playoff games with some timely tackles in the running game.
Here’s a look back at some other midseason imports during the Brady-Belichick era dating back to 2005, a good cutoff date for a number of reasons. It was the first of 10 consecutive seasons in which the Patriots didn’t win the Super Bowl, and the in-season tweaking was more of a necessity; there simply weren’t a ton of notable in-season additions in the early years of the dynasty while the roster was stacked – particularly in 2003 and 2004.
2016: Linebacker Kyle Van Noy
Van Noy fortified the linebacking corps during the Patriots’ run to Super Bowl LI, but rose to even greater prominence this year in his first full season in New England.
Despite missing three games, Van Noy had more sacks (5.5) in 2017 than in the first three years of his career combined (3.0). He’s made great strides as a coverage linebacker, too, and has shown enough versatility to line up both in the middle and along the edge of the defense. After Dont’a Hightower’s season-ending injury, Van Noy began wearing the green communication dot – a designation which essentially anoints a player as the quarterback of the defense.
Not bad for what was originally seen as a depth piece coming over from the Detroit Lions (with a seventh-round pick) for a sixth-round pick.
2015: Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks
A rare player-for-player swap saw the Patriots deal tight end Michael Hoomanawanui to the New Orleans Saints for Hicks on Oct. 1, 2015. Hicks bolstered the interior of New England’s defensive line following the off-season departure of Vince Wilfork via free agency.
Hicks had three sacks over his 13 games with the Patriots before signing with the Chicago Bears as a free agent the next off-season, where he’s been nothing short of outstanding: Hicks has 15.5 sacks over his first two seasons in the Windy City, including a career-high 8.5 in 2017.
2014: Running back LeGarrette Blount
Blount left the Patriots for the Pittsburgh Steelers via free agency after the 2013 season in what wound up begin a less-than-ideal fit. Less than two days after being waived by Pittsburgh, Blount rejoined New England on Nov. 20, 2014.
Just as he had in the previous year’s divisional round game (24 carries, 166 yards, four touchdowns), Blount gashed the Indianapolis Colts in the postseason upon his return. In the 45-7 massacre, Blount carried the ball 30 times for 148 yards and three more touchdowns to help the Patriots along to Super Bowl XLIX.
Blount stuck around for two more seasons, compiling perhaps the best season in franchise history by a running back in 2016 (1,161 yards, team-record 18 touchdowns). One of his final acts in a Patriots uniform is losing a fumble in Super Bowl LI, but the positives of each version of Blount with New England far outweigh the negatives – if any.
Unless you want to count wide receiver Austin Collie, whose four catches for 57 yards trailed only Julian Edelman’s 10 catches for 89 yards in the 26-16 AFC Championship Game loss to the Denver Broncos. Collie had a promising start to his career with the Colts before concussions derailed him. Signed as a free agent in the middle of the season, Collie hung up his cleats after 2013.
2012: Cornerback Aqib Talib
A walking soundbite, Talib gave the Patriots what they’d sorely lacked since Asante Samuel’s departure after the 2007 season: a bona fide No. 1 cornerback.
New England acquired Talib from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a 2013 fourth-round pick at the trade deadline with the notion he’d be the piece to finally help the team over the top after some painful postseason exits in each of the previous two seasons.
Talib played outstanding in both the 2012 and 2013 regular seasons, only to leave the AFC Championship Game each season with an injury. The Patriots lost both games.
2011: Defensive back Sterling Moore
By definition, Moore was by no means an “impact acquisition” when the Patriots first signed him to their practice squad in the middle of the 2011 season.
But his impact was felt, both for better and for worse, in the two biggest games of the season for the team: the AFC Championship Game vs. the Baltimore Ravens and Super Bowl XLVI vs. the New York Giants.
Had Sterling Moore not jarred Lee Evans’ arm away from the ball in the end zone with 27 seconds left in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game, Evans scores a touchdown to give Baltimore what in all likelihood would have been a 27-23 win.
Billy Cundiff shanked a 32-yard field goal two plays after Moore’s pass breakup, sending New England to the Super Bowl for the fifth time in the Brady/Belichick era.
Moore’s heroics against the Ravens were relegated to a footnote when he was in coverage (along with Patrick Chung) on Mario Manningham’s remarkable 38-yard reception up the left sideline, igniting New York’s scoring drive to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl for the second time in five seasons.
2010: Wide receiver Deion Branch
Randy Moss wearing out his welcome and returning home to Minnesota prompted another homecoming: Deion Branch to New England, via trade from Seattle.
It was like Branch had never left. In his first game back with the Patriots on Oct. 17, 2010, Branch led the team with nine catches for 98 yards and a touchdown. Branch finished with more receiving yards in 11 games with the Patriots in 2010 (706) than in any of his final three seasons with the Seahawks.
Branch teamed with Wes Welker and rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to give New England an exciting passing attack before it was stunned by the Jets in the divisional round at home, 28-21. The 2010 season is the last in which the Patriots haven’t advanced to at least the AFC Championship Game; Branch stayed on through the 2012 season.
2009: Linebacker Junior Seau
This is the most recent season the Patriots had to play on wild-card weekend. Seau, then 40, is on this list for name brand recognition only at this point.
2008: Linebackers Junior Seau and Rosevelt Colvin
With Matt Cassel under center, the Patriots were sitting at 7-5 as the calendar flipped to December. Both the late, great Seau, as well as Colvin, were re-signed with four games to go and while New England won all four games, it still wasn’t enough to get the team to the postseason. The Patriots became just the second team ever to win 11 games in the regular season and miss the playoffs…going from being arguably the best team ever to not win the Super Bowl in ’07 to arguably the best team ever to miss the playoffs in ’08.
Virtually no roster move of note took place once the season began as the Patriots came within 35 seconds of finishing 19-0.
2006: Jabar Gaffney
Deion Branch was traded to the Seattle Seahawks amidst a contract dispute, David Givens had departed for the Tennessee Titans via free agency and Troy Brown was on his last legs.
Tom Brady has less help in the passing game in 2006 than ever before or since, and the Patriots were perhaps a Reche Caldwell drop away from getting past the Indianapolis Colts and into Super Bowl XLI.
While Caldwell, an off-season acquisition, is defined by that drop, the mid-season signing of Gaffney is remembered more fondly. Gaffney had nowhere near the impact of the trio of wide receivers New England brought in the next offseason (Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte’ Stallworth) but did have back-to-back monster games in the 2006 postseason: eight catches for 104 yards against the Jets in the wild-card round and 10 catches for 103 yards and a touchdown against the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round.
He stuck around Foxboro for two more seasons, compiling modest numbers as the No. 3 or 4 option in the passing game.
2005: Linebacker Tedy Bruschi
Bruschi never left the Patriots; in a season where no other players of note joined the organization in the middle, Bruschi’s return from a stroke suffered in February 2005 to play in nine games for New England has to get some sort of recognition. Bruschi stayed relatively healthy and effective for the remainder of his career, walking away on his own terms just a few weeks shy of the season opener in 2009.