It is often understood that the New England Patriots do not spend big in free agency. When they do, it’s on a proven game changer that becomes an anchor of the team (see Stephon Gilmore). Instead, the Patriots prefer to hold tight, wait for all the other teams to outbid each other for the available talent, overpaying for unproven players and then signing proven veterans to small contracts who fill a specific role in the Patriots roster. These veterans not only help the team through their own play but can also mentor the young rookies drafted by the Patriots (usually on day 3). Then after all of this, the Patriots find hidden gems in the draft and rejuvenate the careers of previously seen as washed-up veterans. Then came 2021.
First, context shall be provided. Tom Brady, the franchise QB, 6x Superbowl winner and Greatest Player of All Time left for the sunny beaches of Tampa Bay. The Patriots were left with small cap room left to re-load this team. It’s very possible that Belichick could have signed Brady but the deal was not made and the team suddenly seemed underwhelming. A still-strong defence was opposed by a dismal offense. Bargain signing QB Cam Newton originally seemed positive through the first 3 weeks before contracting Covid and never looking like himself, including decline in arm strength and mental processing. The receivers were severely under NFL average (one reason why Brady may have wanted to leave) and no help was coming out of the tight end position. After a 7-9 season, their first losing season since 2002, the Patriots then found themselves with the third most cap space in the league and a declining cap which saw multiple teams already over cap, keeping potential competition low in bidding wars. Whilst everyone was laughing at Belichick after seeing Brady leave and win another Superbowl, this time in Tampa, Belichick was planning beyond the 2020 season. He simply didn’t have a chance to win in 2020. Now 2021 is here.
The largest holes on the roster were on offense, specifically QB, TE and WR. Re-enforcing the O-Line was also a need. On defence, interior D-lineman to stop the run and reinforcements to the linebacking core would be nice. Belichick signed TE Jonnu Smith to a 4-year $50 million contract. Smith is a run-after-catch (RAC) freak. Belichick described him last year (whilst Smith was still a Titan) as the best TE at RAC in the league. Belichick then decided to sign the consensus top free agent TE on the market in Hunter Henry to a 3-year £37.5 million contract. Now the Patriots have gone from the worst TE group in the NFL to maybe the best. Belichick has always had an affinity for the 12 personnel package. As seen when having Ben Watson and Daniel Graham before replacing them with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski more recently. TE is now solved.
Next up is WR. Belichick hasn’t swung for the big-names (not yet anyway) in signing Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. Agholor may seem an overpay at 2 years $26 million but it’s a short-term candidate for a WR that might just boom. If Agholor keeps his form from the Raiders, the Patriots have just signed one of the best deep-ball threats in the league, the role that was left unfilled last year. The risk is if Agholor returns to his Philadelphia form when he led the league in drops. Bourne’s 3-year $22.5 million contract is more conservative, he can serve as primary backup to Julian Edelman or even take the spot if Edelman is past his best (will be 35 next season). Whilst the Patriots don’t have a NO.1 receiver, they do have depth. That top receiver could be found in free agency (Kenny Golladay) or in the draft (Rashod Bateman seems reasonable for where the Pats are picking).
Belichick traded for RT Trent Brown and a 7th round pick for only a 5th rounder. When healthy, he may be the best RT in the league and is a former Patriot. Brown is also on a reasonable contract (1 year $11 million). This allows the Patriots to cover for the loss of Joe Thuney to the Chiefs. The O-Line next year will likely look like:
LT Isaiah Wynn
LG Michael Onwenu
C David Andrews (currently a free agent, believed to either re-sign with Patriots or head down to Miami)
RG Shaq Mason
RT Trent Brown
If Andrews does re-sign, this is easily a top 5 unit in the league. And this was for the price to move back 2 rounds on day 3 of the draft and the Patriots don’t have to pay $16 million a year for the services of Joe Thuney, which the Kansas City Chiefs now have to.
To turn to the defensive side of the ball, the Belichick signed Davon Godchaux for a small 2-year $16 million contract to stop do what the Patriots couldn’t do in 2020, stop the run at the line of scrimmage. This signing along with the Henry Anderson signing instantly improves the Pats D-Line which has been underwhelming in past seasons. Anderson isn’t going to light the league on fire but is a veteran who likely will grab a few sacks and fit into a rotation.
Then comes the largest splash in signing linebacker Matthew Judon. The ex-Raven didn’t have his greatest season last year but before that, he was a force. 9.5 sacks in 2019 and 4 forced fumbles. He will instantly replace Kyle Van Noy who also left before 2020. He will fill the void that the Patriots have long had success at from Ninkovich to Van Noy and now Judon. To those who point that Judon is not a game-wrecker on his own, he will be on a defence featuring workaholic Chase Winovich, the returning Donta Hightower and exciting 2nd year player Josh Uche. This will be a front 7 working by committee. Expect multiple Patriots to have between 5 and 10 sacks rather than 1 or 2 players at 10+ and the rest under 3. 4-years $56 million is not an overpay for Judon who re-enforces this already strong Patriot defence.
The last question is at QB. This is where all the signings make sense. The common criticism of the Patriots’ free agency is they are spending big on good but not great players. However, after signing a 1-year extension for QB Cam Newton, the Pats have a veteran QB next year. A veteran QB who can mentor and test a rookie. All singings were at a point of need for the Patriots, none (maybe outside of Jalen Mills) are at positions of want. This allows the Patriots to go all in on the draft. Their roster outside of a NO.1 WR and a QB past the coming season is looking quite full now. No contact exceeds 4 years, the length of a rookie contract (excluding the 1st round option to make it 5 years). This allows the Patriots to overpay for players outside the QB position for the next 4 to 5 years. This was utilized by both the Eagles and Rams in recent years surrounding Carson Wentz and Jarred Goff respectively. This along with the long history of Belichick finding undervalued players points to the Patriots having and executing a plan. I am now convinced the Patriots will move up in this year’s draft into the top 5 for a QB. They could offer their 3rd rounders this year and a 1st next year to move from 15 to 3 or 4 depending on who is more willing out of the Dolphins and Falcons to trade. That should leave them with a choice of Justin Fields, Mac Jones or Trey Lance (after Lawrence and Wilson go 1 and 2). The rookie QB will then be able to learn behind Newton for up to a year before taking the reins. If they can escape the trade with their 2nd rounder this year, there will still be multiple top quality WRs in a loaded draft class. It looks as if Belichick is playing for 2022 challenge at the Superbowl. The rest of the NFL better watch out.