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Amidst a five-game win streak that has them atop the AFC East once again, the Patriots are making headlines for all the right reasons.
They were also making headlines prior to the season, but for very different reasons. In March, the Patriots spent a record $163 million in guaranteed money to sign free agents to help rebound after missing the playoffs for the first time in 12 years.
At the Thanksgiving mark, the Patriots have already matched their win total from last season (seven) with six games to play. As the regular season heads down the home stretch, let’s take a look at how each of the big-named free agents has done in their first season in New England.
The former Ravens linebacker was the most-expensive player the Patriots signed this offseason and he’s lived up to the billing. New England signed Judon to a four-year, $52 million ($32 million guaranteed), making him one of the league’s top-paid outside linebackers.
Judon made an impact immediately. In his first game in New England, Judon recorded 1.5 stuffs in a loss to Miami. A week later, Judon recorded his first sacks in a win over the Jets, beginning a stretch in which he recorded 6.5 sacks over four games — giving Patriots fans some hope as they started the year 2-4.
Even though he didn’t get to the quarterback in two straight games in Weeks 6 and 7, Judon did record three stuffs in the Week 6 loss to the Cowboys. He’s gotten back to sacking the quarterback though in recent weeks, recording four sacks in the last four games — giving him a new career-high of 10.5 sacks this season. Judon is tied for fourth in sacks this season.
Judon’s dominance as a pass-rusher has certainly played a role in the Patriots’ pass defense, which ranks sixth in the league this season. While Judon’s comments about mac and cheese might have led to some locker room controversy, Judon appears to be stepping up as a leader. For example, he stuck around for Kyle Van Noy’s press conference following the Patriots’ win against the Falcons.
Arguably the most recognizable player the Patriots signed this past offseason was Hunter Henry. When the Patriots signed Henry to a three-year, $37.5 million deal, it was assumed that the Patriots had resolved the tight end issues that plagued them since Rob Gronkowski left.
That didn’t appear to be the case in Henry’s first few games with the Patriots, though. The ex-Charger failed to get in the endzone and recorded 10 catches for 109 yards.
But Henry turned it around quickly. He had a four-game touchdown streak from Weeks 4-7, emerging as Mac Jones’s favorite red zone target. After recording just one catch against his old team in Week 8, Henry got back in the end zone in Week 9 against the Panthers and had two touchdown grabs against the Browns in Week 10.
So far this season, Henry has 33 receptions for 378 yards and seven touchdowns. While he ranks relatively low among his fellow tight ends in receptions (16th) and receiving yards (15th), his seven touchdown receptions are the most among tight ends this season.
Henry’s the fifth-highest paid tight end in football this season, and his ability to get in the end zone appears to make it a good deal for the Patriots.
The first player the Patriots came to terms with this offseason was Jonnu Smith, signing him to a four-year, $50 million deal.
Smith got off to a bit of a better start than Henry in New England, recording nine catches for 70 yards in the first two games. But as Henry emerged, Smith faded. Smith recorded more than two catches in a game just once since then. He also hasn’t been the touchdown threat that he was in Tennessee, recording just one touchdown so far this season.
After a decent showing in the first two weeks, Smith’s downswing began in the Week 3 loss to the Saints. In that game, he saw a pass from Jones go right through his hands and land in the hands of Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, who returned the drop for a pick-six.
Smith did miss the Week 10 win against the Browns due to injury, but he’s recorded just 22 catches for 210 yards this year — which are underwhelming numbers for someone who is also the fifth-highest paid tight end in football.
Signing Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne on the first day of free agency was the Patriots’ immediate answer to solving their wide receiver issues from 2020. Agholor got a two-year, $26 million deal from the Patriots while Bourne received a three-year, $15 million deal.
So far, it’s the lesser-paid receiver who has produced the most.
Agholor got off on the right step in his first game with the Patriots, recording five catches for 72 yards and a touchdown in a loss to the Dolphins. He hasn’t had a performance like that since then, though. Week 11 against the Falcons was the first time Agholor recorded five catches in a game since Week 1.
Through 11 games, Agholor’s recorded 29 receptions for 396 yards and three touchdowns.
As for Bourne, he actually leads the team in receiving yards (562) and has made some highlight plays in his short time in New England. His biggest, of course, was his 75-yard touchdown reception in Week 6 against the Cowboys that gave the Patriots a late lead before losing in overtime.
Bourne has had multiple 90-plus receiving yard days, one in Week 3 against the Saints and another in Week 10 against the Browns. His touchdown reception against the Browns was also another highlight play. He made a leaping grab in traffic to help extend the Patriots’ lead in that one.
In addition to making plays as a receiver, Bourne also made plays as a thrower and a runner. In Week 7 against the Jets, Bourne threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Agholor on the team’s opening drive. Against the Browns, Bourne rushed for 43 yards on three carries as the Patriots were dealing with an undermanned running back room.
Bourne’s consistency over his first 11 games has earned him a spot on ESPN’s “All-Underrated Team.” So, while the pricier receiver hasn’t made much of an impact on the stat sheet, it appears the Patriots got themselves a quality player in Bourne.
When the Patriots signed Jalen Mills to a four-year, $24 million deal this offseason, they probably didn’t expect him to be their No. 2 corner.
But after the departure of Stephon Gilmore, Mills slotted on the opposite side of star corner J.C. Jackson.
The decision to move Mills to the outside has come with mixed results. He held his own against Chris Godwin in Week 4 against the Buccaneers, but allowed seven completions for 98 yards in the Week 6 loss to the Cowboys.
But the Patriots’ switch to more of a zone scheme defensively has seen Mills get targeted less. He’s been targeted just 15 times in the last five games, allowing 24 receptions on 39 targets so far this season.
So, while the Patriots’ switch from a man-to-man to a zone scheme was in part due to Mills’ struggles, they’ve appeared to figure out how to play Mills out of position in recent weeks.
The Patriots opted for a reunion with Kyle Van Noy this offseason after the linebacker was cut from the Dolphins, signing him to a two-year, $13.2 million deal.
Much like some of the other free agents the Patriots signed, Van Noy got off to a slow start on the season. A throat injury caused Van Noy to miss the Week 2 matchup against the Jets and a groin injury has plagued him for much of the season.
But he turned it up in recent weeks. In Week 10 against the Browns, Van Noy recorded his first sack since Week 1. He followed that up by recording a team-high eight tackles and two sacks against the Falcons in Week 12, putting an exclamation mark on the victory with a pick-six.
Van Noy’s three sacks over the last three weeks are a positive sign for New England. The Patriots have failed to get much of a pass rush outside of Judon this season, with Van Noy being the only other Patriot to have more than three sacks this season.
The Patriots made a move in the draft to trade up in the second round to select Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore, but that wasn’t their only move to bolster their interior defensive line this offseason.
Early in free agency, they came to terms with Davon Godchaux on a two-year, $16 million deal.
As an interior defensive lineman, Godchaux hasn’t shown up much on the stat sheet this season, but he did in Week 11 against the Falcons. He recorded two QB hits in the win, including his first sack of the season. He hasn’t graded out too well on Pro Football Focus (53.9) this season, but he played a role in the Patriots’ run defense that’s gone from 26th a year ago to ninth this season.
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