Patriots

Patriots’ free agency binge is about opportunity, not revenge

It seems like an exceedingly un-Patriot way of doing business.

Tom Brady talks to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick before a game against the Dallas Cowboys. Getty Images

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It is delightful to envision an enraged Bill Belichick, fuming over Tom Brady’s Super Bowl victory, plotting and scheming over the last month, waiting for the moment when he could heave wads of cash out of his office window into the arms of free agents. For anyone inclined to see it, the New England Patriots’ free agency blitz has all the markings of a coach driven mad by vengeance and spite, and there is nothing more fun in a sports than a rivalry built on those qualities.

Alas, those motivations must remain confined to the imagination. The Patriots’ spree is less about desperation and fury than recognition and opportunity. Belichick telegraphed the head-spinning past two days in late autumn, long before Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers emerged as a January juggernaut. The Patriots stunk last year, less talented than even their 7-9 record would indicate. They needed to get better, and through circumstance and planning they had ample salary cap room to do so. The result has been the Patriots’ two-day onslaught.

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Tuesday morning, the Patriots agreed to a three-year, $37.5 million contract with Hunter Henry, the best tight end on the market. They added him to a roster that now will also include the second-best tight end on the market, Jonnu Smith, whom they signed Monday to a four-year, $50 million contract. The Patriots also picked up wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, giving them wholly revamped skill position personnel.

And that was only on offense. The Patriots added former Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Matthew Judon, one of the best defensive players available, for $56 million over four years. They signed run-stuffing defensive tackle Davon Godchaux and former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Jalen Mills.

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In less than 24 hours, the Patriots had guaranteed $137.5 million to free agents, the second-highest spending in league history. Before free agency ends – or even before it officially begins, in the NFL’s byzantine offseason schedule – New England could set a record.

It seems like an exceedingly un-Patriot way of doing business. And it’s true that for years, the Patriots eschewed free agency splashes in favor of re-signing their own players and identifying mid-tier veterans who could be had for value prices, wooed in part by the opportunity to play alongside Brady and compete annually for Super Bowl titles.

Just like the Patriots create a new game plan every week for each opponent rather than hewing to a strict system, Belichick takes every offseason as its own challenge, to be solved with a unique approach. What he has done in the past is not a guide for what he will do in the future if circumstances change.

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Typically, Belichick does not want to bid against teams willing to overpay. This year, free agency presented value because the salary cap is depressed after the pandemic slashed league revenue, forcing many teams to wait out the market. With fewer bidders, the Patriots could swoop in. As the salary cap booms in coming seasons after the NFL signs its next television rights contract, the contracts the Patriots signed this offseason will only look like bigger bargains.

The Patriots also made the calculation that 2020 would be a season in which they reset their salary cap space after years of trying to build a contender around Brady. The Patriots frequently squandered money on underperforming players, especially at the skill positions, but they also won three Super Bowls and reached another in Brady’s final six years in New England. The Patriots carried $28 million in dead cap money last year, choosing to let bills come due while breaking in a new quarterback during a pandemic.

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“This is kind of the year that we’ve taken to, I would say, adjust our cap from the spending that we’ve had in accumulation of prior years,” Belichick said in late October in an interview on SiriusXM radio with host Charlie Weis, his former offensive coordinator. “We just haven’t been able to have the kind of depth on our roster that we’ve had in some other years.”

The Patriots stunk last year. More than one NFL insider praised Belichick’s coaching performance, insisting that reaching seven wins with that roster bordered on the miraculous. One reason the Patriots had so much cap space this year, aside from paying so much dead cap last year, was that they haven’t signed many draftees to high-priced second contracts, because they haven’t been worth it. Belichick saw his roster had deteriorated. This free agency was his way of fixing it.

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It helped that the Patriots found players who fit how Belichick wants to play. They acquired typical Patriots in an atypical way. Judon is a smart, versatile edge rusher who is much more than a sack artist; he moved around and did everything in Don Martindale’s Baltimore scheme. Smith and Henry will let the Patriots play in a two-tight end system they have sought to recreate since the peak of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Smith has even shown the ability to take handoffs, like Hernandez once did; Belichick last year called Smith one of the best runners in the NFL among pass catchers. Mills can play all over the defensive backfield, a trait Belichick prizes.

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The Patriots still must answer their biggest question, which is who will be Brady’s long-term replacement. They re-signed Cam Newton on the cheap, a low-risk bet that Newton’s health will improve and a full offseason with New England’s coaches will allow him to reach his full potential. Newton’s passing was abysmal down the stretch, though, and it seems clear the Patriots must further address the position, possibly in the draft.

New England is a far different team than it was this weekend. It may not even be done. The past two days did not fit Belichick’s pattern, but the entire point of Belichick’s brilliance is that he rarely falls into patterns. The one constant in his 20 years in New England has been winning. That ended last year. He is betting a new approach will lead to a return.

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