Football is typically a young man’s game, and Bill Belichick has traditionally erred on the side of separating from a player a season early rather than a season late. He’s not wholly opposed to older players, but more often than not it hasn’t worked out when his Patriots have taken a shot on a player in the late stages of his career.
There have been exceptions. The 2001 Pats were full of veteran personalities Belichick brought in to establish a culture. Rodney Harrison, who turned 31 during his first season in Foxborough, will be inducted as a Patriots hall of famer later this month. And when it comes to the Patriots and aging players, soon-to-be-42-year-old Tom Brady always merits mention.
But this season, as they look to defend their latest title, the Patriots brought in a handful of intriguing players who’ll be at least 30 by season’s end, and from whom the team appears to be expecting some measure of meaningful contribution.
Among them are a couple of retreads who’ve called Gillette Stadium home in the past, a couple of former Pro Bowlers who carry big names, and a grinder who has the traits that makes him an intriguing possibility at a potentially thin position. Here’s a look at each:
At age 25, Trey Flowers cashed in on his burgeoning stardom and signed a $90 million contract with Detroit — and now the 33-year-old Bennett appears to be the primary option to fill the void. Swapping a player in the early stages of his prime for one a decade into his career certainly comes with risk, especially given the importance of that role in a defense, although Bennett’s production during his age-32 season was good enough to suggest he can still do the job.
In his lone season with the Eagles, Bennett registered nine sacks — tied for the second-most in his career, and two more than Flowers had for the Pats. He made 15 tackles for loss (third-most in his 10 seasons) and was credited with 30 hits on opposing quarterbacks. He’s never had more in a single campaign.
He played in all 16 regular-season games for the sixth time in seven years, and participated in nearly 70 percent of Philadelphia’s defensive snaps. Considering the Pats more or less acquired him for nothing (they gave up a fifth-round pick while getting a seventh in return), then re-worked his two-year deal a week later, taking a risk on a player of Bennett’s pedigree was a no-brainer. And based on his recent past, there’s reason to think it could come with a significant reward.
Right around the time he turned 38, the tight end revealed his plan to retire after last season. He was so serious about the plan, he says, that soon after his Saints lost he went forward with a testosterone-boosting treatment meant to help his body recover. It wasn’t legal, per the rules of the NFL, but those wouldn’t govern Watson in retirement.
Then the Patriots called. The team that had drafted him in 2004 wanted him back, prompting a reconsideration that caused Watson to put off his plans for at least another year, and brought him back to New England — albeit with a looming four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancers.
Watson’s first game back will be the 196th of his career, will likely come a couple months shy of his 39th birthday, and it will have been almost 14 years since his field-long sprint to chase down the Broncos’ Champ Bailey after a Brady interception. Yet if the Patriots can pick their spots with the way they use him — and resist whatever urge their might be to overload him in their effort to replace Rob Gronkowski — Watson’s late-career surge sayshe has enough left to serve a purpose.
As a Patriot, his best season was 2006, when he caught 49 passes for 643 yards on 91 targets. He didn’t come close to any of those totals again until he went to Cleveland at age 30, and then it wasn’t until age 35 that Watson enjoyed what will go down as his career year. Drew Brees targeted him with 110 passes, and Watson set career highs with 74 catches, 825 yards, and six touchdowns. That was in 2016.
He tore his Achilles during the 2017 season, then last year returned to New Orleans and hauled in 35 balls for 400 yards. The Saints effectively managed and maximized Watson’s usage, utilizing him in only 48 percent of offensive snaps. (Two years earlier, it was 85 percent.) As a complement to the team’s other tight ends, Watson could be a weapon; but if offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels doesn’t properly manage or monitor, the Pats may not get the most of what figures to be their best pass-catching tight end.
Only five active players have made more catches than Thomas, and only six have racked up more receiving yards than the five-time Pro Bowler. For a time he was a vital cog in one of the greatest offensive machines in NFL history, flexing his physical gifts of size, strength, and speed.
He caught 297 passes and 35 touchdowns in a three-year span that included his peak season of 2014, which boasted 111 catches, 1,619 yards and 11 scores. Since then, though, the decline has been steady — and now he arrives in Foxborough in the wake of an Achilles injury, with historical comparisons casting significant doubts about what he can contribute.
Thomas didn’t contribute a lot to either the Broncos or Texans last season, before or after a midseason deal that sent him to Houston for a fourth-round pick. The Texans got 23 grabs in seven games out of the deal, then lost him to a heel injury on Christmas Eve. He played and started 15 games, but it continued a progression that has seen his receiving yards go from 1,619 to 1,304 to 1,083 to 949 to 677 over the past five years. His 59 catches last season were a drop of 24 from the year prior, which was already his fewest since 2011.
Receivers don’t typically age well. And that includes those whose careers have followed a similar path to that of Thomas. According to Pro Football Reference, the five most similar receivers to Thomas through age 31 are A.J. Green, Antonio Freeman, Derrick Alexander, Dez Bryant, and Sterling Sharpe. Green’s numbers and reliability have dipped over the past three seasons in Cincinnati. Freeman at 31 had 14 catches for 141 yards in his final season. Alexander at 31 had 14 catches for 134 yards in his final season. Dez Bryant couldn’t draw a contract for most of last season, then popped his Achilles in practice after signing with the Saints. Sharpe was retired after his age-29 season.
Bryant and Thomas were both part of the 2010 draft class. Last season, only four members of that class of receivers caught more than 12 passes. Thomas was one of them — but coming off an injury, joining a new system, and all the while trying to fight off time, there’s no guarantee he’ll replicate that feat this season. At least as a member of the Patriots.
After being traded by the Patriots on Halloween of 2016, Collins made a strong enough impression to convince the Browns he was worth a $50 million contract. The next year, though, he spent three weeks in the concussion protocol, then tore the MCL in his right knee, and was limited to six games. He returned to play a full slate in 2018, though that wasn’t enough to keep Cleveland from cutting him this past March, and precipitating his reunion with the Patriots.
Collins was let go by the Browns primarily because they had the chance to get out from under the contract they’d given him — but he still appears to be a functional football player. Pro Football Focus rated him in the average range for last season, which he finished with 104 tackles and four sacks. Seventy-three of his tackles were of the solo variety, and 13 were in the offensive backfield. Cleveland’s defense improved over the course of the season, and Collins was on the field for nearly 91 percent of its defensive snaps. Free safety Damarious Randall was the only Brown to play more.
Collins will turn 30 on October 20. It stands to reason, then, that he may no longer be the athletic freak the Pats initially plucked out of Southern Miss back in 2013. But with Collins there’s a chance Bill Belichick could replicate the sort of reunion the team made with Patrick Chung prior to the 2014 season. Another former second-round choice, Chung went to Philadelphia for a season, got cut, and when he got back to Foxborough the Patriots’ coaching staff appeared to have a better grasp on how to get the most from his talents. They used him better than they had during his initial stay, and after going elsewhere he seemed to fit better into New England’s scheme.
The Patriots are in decent shape with their linebacking corps. Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy are the stallwarts, while Elandon Roberts highlights a group of younger, play-to-your-strengths collection of pieces. Adding Collins to that mix — maybe most intriguingly as a blitzer — could be a major asset.
Inman turned 30 in January — just after finishing a successful stretch in Indianapolis that may give reason to think he’ll succeed in New England.
The receiver who played his way into the NFL by winning a Gray Cup with the Toronto Argonauts in 2012 had seemed to be on the cusp of carving out a nice career for himself back in 2016. He caught 58 passes for the Chargers, racking up 810 yards and 14 yards per catch. That spring, San Diego expressed their interest in keeping him by placing a second-round tender offer on him, but a month later he underwent surgery for a core injury. He returned for the start of the season, but after playing 90 percent of the Chargers’ snaps in 2016, that dipped to around 15 percent in 2017. That October, he was traded to the Bears. He made 23 catches in eight games, but was let go after the season, and he remained a free agent until October of 2018.
He played only nine games for the Colts, but made 28 catches for 304 yards and three scores. He scored in big moments, including a two-game playoff run in which he totaled eight grabs for 108 yards. And he was reliable, catching 77 percent of the passes thrown his way, and giving Andrew Luck a passer rating of 133 when firing in his direction.
At 6-3, 205 pounds, his size is intriguing. As are his hands, and the product of Virginia is said to have a high football intelligence. His winding path speaks to his perseverance, as well, and if he can strike a cord with Brady it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could play a role with the Patriots — particularly if Thomas or Josh Gordon doesn’t work out.