Patriots

Bill Belichick bets on himself, and other early takeaways from Patriots free agency

Will the Patriots be able to succeed with their "next-man-up" philosophy as they always have, or are they in for a rude awakening?

Bill Belichick Patriots
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches football drills during Georgia's Pro Day on Wednesday, March 16, 2022, in Athens, Ga. AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
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On one hand, the fact that the Patriots aren’t exactly signing up the entire free-agent pool this season shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. After all, the team spent nearly $160 million overhauling their roster last season in hopes of returning to the playoffs.

They accomplished that goal, and now they have a good deal of money tied up for this year at least (though, as the New Orleans Saints have shown, you can find ways to create more cap space if you want to). So this was always more likely to be a year of tweaks and adjustments rather than big change.

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Still, inevitably, roster turnover has happened in New England, and it happens to affect two major areas on the team: offensive line and cornerback.

The Patriots lost All-Pro cornerback J.C. Jackson and dependable guard Ted Karras in free agency and traded Shaq Mason to Tom Brady’s Buccaneers to recoup about $7 million in cap space.

On the flip side, the team has largely focused on retaining low-cost veterans (e.g., Matthew Slater, Brian Hoyer, Devin McCourty and James White) rather than swinging at big names on the open market. The one free agent they’ve signed, cornerback Terrance Mitchell, is a low-risk depth signing, and linebacker Mack Wilson, who comes via the Chase Winovich trade, also isn’t an obvious starter on this defense.

Meanwhile, wide receivers like Allen Robinson and JuJu Smith-Schuster — both of whom the Patriots have made inquiries on — are still on the market but might be too rich for New England’s blood in the end.

So what gives? How are the Patriots going to make this team better and challenge the Bills, not to mention an increasingly formidable AFC?

By going all-in on “the Patriot Way.”

The Patriots know well that they’re creating massive roster holes by not retaining Jackson, Mason and Karras and know it could get more grave if right tackle Trent Brown doesn’t re-sign with the team. They just believe they can make the next man up be just as effective.

Guys like J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones and Jakobi Meyers were undrafted. Mason was a fourth-round pick. Karras was a xith-rounder. Why wouldn’t the Patriots believe they can just find new players off the scrap heap and make them productive?

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That’s what they’ve always done, after all.

For example, Dont’a Hightower, who was drafted in 2012, is the last Patriots first-round pick to earn a second contract in New England. Since that draft, only six Patriots drafted in any round (Karras, Mason, Joe Cardona, Jamie Collins, Duron Harmon) have had more than one contract. Two of them, Collins and Karras, have had to leave first and come back after playing with other teams.

There’s always been a late-round pick, undrafted free agent or castoff from another team that can play at the level needed to keep things moving and help New England compete for Super Bowls.

They’re even treating their own coaching staff that way in essence, replacing offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels with a nebulous hierarchy that includes Joe Judge, Matt Patricia, and Belichick himself having roles running the offense.

Right now, the Patriots are running into two issues with that approach, though: Aside from last year’s, their recent drafts haven’t been very good, and they no longer have the greatest quarterback of all time to cover up the trouble spots.

With Mac Jones going into his second season, Belichick and the Patriots appear as if they’re going to stick with their tried-and-true approach to develop what they already have and replace what the players they’ve lost in an affordable way.

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The worry, though, is that the Patriots might finally be about to find out the limits to that approach as their competition gets stronger.

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