There are a few potential explanations for why the Patriots, to this point in free agency, have behaved dramatically differently from previous years.
It’s possible that, given the current challenges of international travel, Bill Belichick was at home instead of lounging in Barbados, as he was this time two years ago, and was simply bored.
It’s also possible that, having grown power-hungry after experiencing a taste of the limelight during last year’s draft, Belichick’s Alaskan Klee Kai, Nike, in a biscuit-addled haze, commandeered Belichick’s phone and computer and started spending with abandon on the free-agent market.
when it's the legal tampering period: pic.twitter.com/hcbHVuq9Jf— Nora Princiotti (@NoraPrinciotti) March 15, 2021
It is at least worth considering, though, that New England’s 7-9 record in 2020 forced Belichick and the rest of the Patriots brass to adopt a strategy they hadn’t previously considered in the days when they were starting players who were considered “value” signings in the Super Bowl while the rest of the league chased success with big-money checks: If you can’t beat ’em (at least half the time), join ’em.
The NFL’s new league year officially began Wednesday and the Patriots, shockingly, have been the most active team in free agency. New England has signed tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, center Ted Karras, defensive back Jalen Mills, linebacker Matt Judon, defensive linemen Davon Godchaux and Henry Anderson and traded with the Raiders for offensive tackle Trent Brown. New England has also brought back quarterback Cam Newton, defensive end Deatrich Wise, and special teamer Justin Bethel from its own free-agent class.
Individually, it’s easy to explain how all of these moves make sense. Tight ends have been an integral part of New England’s offense for years, yet the Patriots got almost no production from the position in 2020. They now employ one of the top all-around players at that position in Henry and an exceptional athlete in Smith. There was a clear need to upgrade the receiving corps as well, especially considering Julian Edelman’s age and injury history, and adding a receiver like Agholor, who has the speed to play on the outside and the quickness to play in the slot, seems like a nice move. Bourne has some big-play ability. Godchaux and Anderson should help a rushing defense that finished 26th in 2020 and Judon brings a durable and athletic edge presence to a defense that finished tied for 26th in sacks last season. You can go on down the line; each of these players gives the Patriots elements they were lacking last season.
Collectively, though, it’s a stunning turn of events. The Patriots almost never open the checkbook at the start of free agency. Even when they signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a $65 million deal in 2017, only two more signings—running back Rex Burkhead and defensive lineman Lawrence Guy—joined Gilmore in that class. The Patriots gave Smith a contract with the most guaranteed money ever for a tight end, then signed Henry to an equally large deal by annual value. Some of these deals are arguably overpays—Judon has never had 10 sacks in a season and Smith’s career receiving high is 448 yards; the two combined are getting about $63 million in guaranteed money—but that’s not a knock on the players. That’s what happens to teams that have no choice but to rebuild their roster in free agency—the Patriots just have seldom been in that position under Belichick. Usually, they wait around to sniff out below-market deals, they don’t go out to buy a new team. That’s what the Jets are supposed to do.
Times have changed. So far this free-agency period, Belichick has spent more than half as much money on new free agents than he had in the prior 10 years combined.
$ spent by Bill Belichick adding new players in free agency:— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) March 16, 2021
prior 10 years total: $359,886,620
first 2 days of 2021: $227,500,000
In those prior 10 years, though—and I hope you’re sitting down for this—the Patriots also employed a quarterback named Tom Brady and were doing pretty well. To replace him, New England took a smart chance signing Newton to a cheap contract last summer but, by the time Brady was hoisting the Lombardi Trophy and getting boat drunk in Tampa, the Patriots were looking in the mirror at a losing record, a roster full of holes, and nearly $70 million in cap space. They had almost no choice but to try something.
It seems plain from this spending spree that Belichick wasn’t particularly fond of last season’s roster. He did, however, have a fairly significant hand in its creation. The Patriots got next-to-no tight end production in 2020 after having drafted two of them—Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene—in the third round. They needed to spend on free-agent receivers in part because 2019 first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry has 414 total receiving yards in two seasons. New England’s best draft pick in the past five years is probably guard Joe Thuney, taken in the third round in 2016, who just signed an $80 million contract with the Chiefs. There are still needs on defense, given starters like Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, and Gilmore are into their 30s and the Patriots could lose one of their top cornerbacks in J.C. Jackson. Those holes, plus the fact that Newton is only a short-term plan at quarterback, mean pressure is on with the no. 15 pick in the upcoming draft, the highest selection New England has had since 2008.
It’s too soon to tell whether the Patriots went on this spending spree to build up a roster for Newton or for another quarterback to be named later. What’s apparent is that a total teardown is out of the question. If Belichick hated going 7-9 so much he completely rethought his approach to free agency, it should only serve as further proof a tank is not happening. New England needed a win and it got one, just not the kind that comes in February. Congratulations to the Patriots: You’ve won free agency.