Patriots

Bill Belichick the GM has built a Patriots to believe in

Bill the GM looks like Bill the Genius based on what his acquisitions have delivered over the past month.

Bill Belichick Patriots
Bill Belichick looks on during pre-game warm-ups on Sunday as the Patriots prepare to play the Jets. Matthew J Lee/Boston Globe Staff

COMMENTARY

The holdouts are dwindling by the week. Some came around after the win at Los Angeles. More were convinced by the pounding put on Carolina. Now, after Sunday, many of the rest seem ready to acknowledge that the Patriots’ return to contention is for real.

And if you’re among those who believe in these Patriots right now, you’ve got no choice but to be impressed by the work Bill Belichick — Bill the GM, so to speak — has done in rebuilding New England’s roster.

“Bill the GM” has long been a target of trolls, among others, who’ve been critical of Belichick as a talent evaluator. They are quick to question how effective he’s been in the role traditionally assigned to a general manager, and tend to be critical of his personnel choices, as well as how he manages payroll, while saying he’s a flawed executive who’s covered up for his roster mismanagement with his coaching ability. And with having Tom Brady erase so many blemishes from behind center.

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On Wednesday it’ll be exactly 20 months since Brady announced he was leaving for Tampa Bay. Over that span, the Patriots have gone 13-13, while the Buccaneers have won both a Super Bowl and the lone head-to-head matchup between the teams. As good as Pats fans are feeling after Sunday, and as frustrated as Brady appears to be by the Bucs’ recent struggles, this is not the time to relitigate the Coach vs. Quarterback conversation.

But it is a fair time to reassess how Belichick has done in reconstructing the Patriots in Brady’s stead, particularly given that the second season since the divorce is now pushing up against Thanksgiving. And as we look at the playmaking pieces who have helped to key this four-game surge that has elevated New England back into the mix among the AFC elite, Bill the GM looks like Bill the Genius based on what his acquisitions have delivered over the past month.

Rookie quarterback Mac Jones gets paid the bulk of the attention paid to the Patriots’ rebuild, although in Sunday’s 45-7 bludgeoning of the Browns, 13 of their 22 starters were players the Patriots have either acquired or re-signed in free agency since Brady’s exit triggered the reset button. And while Jones joined the fold in April, the process effectively began more than a year earlier.

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It started in March of 2020, when, a couple of days after losing Brady, the Pats landed Adrian Phillips, who’d been an All-Pro special teams talent with the Chargers, but has thrived as a heart-of-the-defense safety throughout his two-year, $6 million stint with New England. Later that spring they further fortified the secondary through the draft, choosing another safety in Kyle Dugger.

That was no slam-dunk choice. The Pats initially traded down, then took Dugger, at age 24, out of Division II Lenoir-Rhyne University. His interception Sunday was his third in the past five weeks, and both he and Phillips are playing more than 81 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps this season.

As part of trading down, not only did the Patriots wind up with Dugger, but they also acquired the necessary capital to also spend a second-round pick on Josh Uche, whose three sacks are second on the team to this point. The next day, Belichick took a pair of sixth-round picks and used them to move up 30 spots so he could draft Uche’s college teammate, Michael Onwenu. Playing both guard and tackle, he would go on to start all 16 games as a rookie and earn a spot on the Pro Football Writers Association’s all-rookie team.

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With that, the restocking of the cabinets had begun — but the shelves were still pretty bare, as evidenced by 2020’s 7-9 record. To quickly get his team back to a point where it could legitimately compete, rather than proceed through a progressive rebuild, Bill the GM needed to be bold. As importantly, he needed to be right.

Ten games in, it looks like he was both.

The Patriots’ offseason makeover made splashy headlines in the early days of free agency, when New England crashed the scene looking to make it rain. It marked a departure from the team’s typical mode of operation, but thus far it’s worked. Linebacker Matt Judon looks like a perfect fit for Foxborough. Tackle Davon Godchaux and cornerback Jalen Mills have both been mainstays for what has grown into a top-five defense. Tight end Hunter Henry has emerged as a huge asset in the red area. And, most recently on Sunday, Kendrick Bourne has looked like the fast, physical playmaker Jonnu Smith was supposed to be.

There’s still time for Smith and Nelson Agholor to figure it out; both possess more than enough physical ability to make the production match the paycheck before the season’s out. Either way, the headlines were justified. The Pats’ plunge into free agency looks like it paid off.

But Belichick’s offseason success was more than merely wading into the open market with wads of cash.

He made the right calls on a number of his own free agents, re-signing James White, David Andrews, Lawrence Guy, and Nick Folk — who’s the most accurate kicker in the NFL to this point in the season. He also brought back a couple of familiar faces who’d left for a year in Miami. Kyle Van Noy has come back and played more snaps than any linebacker other than Judon, while offensive lineman Ted Karras hasn’t missed a snap in the past six games. His installation into the lineup came right around the time that unit started to solidify.

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Belichick also did some masterful maneuvering when he brought back behemoth offensive tackle Trent Brown via a trade with the Raiders, and in a corresponding move that same week he dealt incumbent Marcus Cannon to the Texans. As part of the compensation for Cannon, Houston sent to New England a fourth-round pick — which the Patriots then coolly used as ammo to move up eight spots from its original slot in the second round. They did that to draft Christian Barmore, the 21-year-old stud who looks like a star in the making along the defensive line.

Between Barmore, Jones, and exciting back Rhamondre Stevenson, this is already shaping up as the sort of draft class that has buoyed the Patriots at other turning points over the course of their dynasty. In 2003 and 2004, then again in 2009 and 2010, the Pats’ draft netted at least three long-term starters (if not stars) in back-to-back years. It’s too early to say, but there at least appears a chance the class of 2021 could be another transformative group.

Belichick hasn’t been perfect, for sure. Not all of his free-agent signings have gone fully according to plan, and a case could be made that he mismanaged the asset he had with cornerback Stephon Gilmore. That being said, the belief in these Patriots is based on the recent run where the defense, including the secondary, has been spectacular. And the collective confidence in this team has only grown since Gilmore was cast off to Carolina.

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Every executive or GM is going to endure mistakes. Similarly, every move is subject to reevaluation over time. But, in this moment, with their six wins as many wins as the division-leading Bills and reigning champion Bucs, the Patriots look like a team that has the right pieces in place to make a run — both this year and into the future.

In Bill We Trust. Again.

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