Patriots

Chad Finn: Making sense of the Patriots’ recent signing frenzy

Speculation on why Belichick decided to go all-in this offseason leads to some interesting narratives.

Former Titans tight end Jonnu Smith catches a pass during a Dec. 20, 2020 game against the Lions. AP Photo/Ben Margot

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Thoughts on the Patriots’ transaction whirlwind while refreshing Twitter to see who else they’ve signed in the last five minutes …

Is this a deviation from the way Bill Belichick usually does business? Of course it is. There have been offseasons when he has spent big or added accomplished names to the roster. The most-cited example is before the 2007 season, with Wes Welker, Randy Moss, and Adalius Thomas coming to Foxborough. Entering 2003, he paid up for Rosevelt Colvin and Rodney Harrison. And there’s the more recent relative binge, before the 2017 season, when he signed Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a $65 million deal ($31 million guaranteed), when most of us mistakenly thought that money should have gone to Malcolm Butler. He also retained Dont’a Hightower that offseason on a $43.5 million deal ($19 million guaranteed), despite the best efforts of the Jets, who plied Hightower with cupcakes during his free-agent visit. Cash usually wins out over cupcakes, though not always.

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The only time they’ve brought in this volume of veterans was after the 2000 season, when Belichick added more than 20 free agents to a roster severely lacking quality depth. While many from that class  turned out to be excellent signings (Mike Vrabel was an all-time bargain, Roman Phifer was so versatile it’s too bad they couldn’t clone him, David Patten had so many huge catches in those early years), almost all of them had a discounted sticker price.

During the first two days of free agency this time around, Belichick has signed eight players from other organizations – tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, defensive tackles Henry Anderson and Davon Godchaux, pass rusher Matt Judon, defensive back Jalen Mills, and receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne – for guarantees totally more than $100 million. He also re-signed defensive lineman Deatrich Wise, bringing the total value of contracts awarded to more than $250 million. When Robert Kraft purchased the Patriots in 1994, he paid $172 million.

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Speculation on why Belichick decided to go all-in this offseason leads to some interesting narratives. Some of them may even have some truth. It’s reasonable to believe that Tom Brady’s Super Bowl win with the Bucs inspired Belichick at least a little bit to accelerate his roster reconstruction. A 7-9 season is unacceptable enough for a coach pursuing the all-time wins record without having to watch the quarterback with whom credit for the Patriots dynasty will always be shared immediately collect another Lombardi Trophy elsewhere.

Sure, there’s some ego involved. It’s also an acknowledgement, a tacit one anyway, that there were significant holes on this roster in part because of botched draft picks the last few years. I guess we know how they feel about N’Keal Harry, Devin Asiasi, and Dalton Keene now, huh? Roughly the same way most of us do. But I don’t think this is an abandonment of the usual way of doing things, of seeking players with certain characteristics. Judon’s versatility, for instance, should have made him stand out as someone the Patriots should target. His appreciation of Henry was common knowledge. Mills is reputed to be a great locker room presence. These players fit a Patriot profile.

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But, the truest reason for why the Patriots did this is probably the most boring. Actually, it’s a sequence of reasons: The salary cap went down this year, the first time that has happened since 2011, the year of the lockout. The Patriots were one of few teams with plenty of room to operate under the $182.5 million threshold. Because the cap is down, an influx of quality players were available on the market, without as much competition for them as there would be in a normal year. And the cap will rise when the new television rights deals are in place, leading to little risk of signing players to big money deals right now. Spending like this makes sense, even if we weren’t certain Belichick would actually do it until the spree began about 2 minutes after the tampering period opened Monday.

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It hasn’t been a good few days for those suggesting the Patriots’ problem was at quarterback rather than the limited group of players the quarterback had at his disposal. Bringing in two high-quality tight ends seems to be some confirmation that Cam Newton, who thrived with Greg Olsen as his safety valve in Carolina, will be the guy taking the snaps at least to start next season. But it would not shock me if the Patriots, having filled so many holes in free agency, trade up to get the quarterback they like in the first round, then letting him understudy with Newton for a year. The free-agent binge actually enhances the intrigue around what they will do in the draft.

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A hearty farewell to Joe Thuney, who got five years and $80 million (with a reported $32.5 million guaranteed over the first two years) to help keep Patrick Mahomes from ever being spindled again like he was by the Bucs in Super Bowl LV. By my accounting, Thuney is the third-best guard the Patriots have had, after John Hannah, the best-ever at the position, and Logan Mankins. That Chandler Jones trade doesn’t look so bad when you realize they parlayed one of the picks acquired from the Cardinals into Thuney, as well as Super Bowl LI stalwart Malcolm Mitchell.

For all of the fun the past two days have been for Patriots fans, it’s always tough to see popular players go elsewhere. Thuney’s departure is not a surprise, but it would be tough to watch tough, smart center David Andrews end up elsewhere. And it seems a forgone conclusion that James White will be joining one team or another in his native Florida. His performance in Super Bowl LI —  a record 14 receptions for 110 yards, six carries for 29 yards, a 2-point conversion, and three total touchdowns, including the tying score in regulation and the winner in overtime – will stand as the greatest ever by a player who didn’t win the MVP award.

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The Patriots were a play or two away from winning another couple of games last year. Hightower and Patrick Chung are returning from opt-outs to a reloaded defense that was the team’s real weakness last year. I’m still chuckling at Belichick signing the two best in-their-prime tight ends on the free agent market. I can’t believe we have to wait six months to see this team. We still have to put up with the Red Sox first.

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